Manufacturing Tomorrow


How The Internet of Things Is Changing The Way Discrete Manufacturers Produce Products

Jan 03, 2017
By: Mark Stevens


When it comes to the industrial sector, the Internet of Things (commonly known as IoT), refers to real-time communication (machine-to-machine, machine-to-person and person-to-machine) and networks of data-gathering sensors. Technologies based on IoT have the potential to drastically improve data visibility and, with the intelligence that’s gathered from all those sensors, improve nearly every aspect of manufacturing. When you capture and analyze the data generated by equipment, systems and people, you’re able to unlock insights that enable you to improve virtually everything you do.

This post will give you insight into why 79 percent of today’s manufacturing leaders are using IoT technologies—with 82 percent of them reporting increases in operational efficiency and improved product quality, according to Microsoft.

Giving Your Equipment a Voice

When you embed a microcomputer or sensor into a piece of industrial equipment, a product, a conveyor system or just about anything other physical device involved in the manufacturing process, you suddenly have the ability to collect a variety of data and use it to improve the performance of each of those components, the way they interact—and the quality of your processes and products.

The concept is similar to what you find in today’s cars: many components within your vehicle are fitted with sensors that tell you when your tires are low on air, when ice is detected on the road, when an object is in your path, or when your oil needs to be changed. These are all consumer examples, but comparable things are being done in the industrial sector.

IoT is already making dramatic changes in manufacturing and growth is expected to be huge. GE has predicted $1 trillion in opportunity annually by improving how assets are used and how operations and maintenance are performed within the industrial sector. IoT allows companies to ditch the “fix it when it breaks” approach to manufacturing because the constant flow of information coming from all points throughout a facility indicates when and where performance is compromised or soon will be.

This visibility and opportunity to improve isn’t limited to the manufacturing floor, though; it also applies to points throughout the supply chain. With real-time data on sourcing, inventory levels and transportation, manufacturers have insights that allow them to improve processes, optimize inventory levels and shipping costs, boost productivity and improve customer satisfaction.

Here are just a few of the notable examples of how some leading manufacturers are using IoT:

Cisco. Cisco, a leader in IT, developed a way to monitor tire inflation system on tractor-trailers. The trailer is equipped with a sensor that alerts the driver of low tire pressure; because the sensor is connected to other systems, it also alerts nearby maintenance yards, warranty systems and all the other relevant points, automatically. With this capability drivers no longer had to be counted on to report and handle incidents and any delays were relayed to the customer immediately.

Siemens. This engineering powerhouse embeds microcomputers in everything from medical equipment and building management systems to trains, power distribution systems and turbines. One example of how applications can work in the medical field is a doctor, using a modern CT scanner with a microcomputer, can view images created by the CT machine on a local monitor, then transfer that data to a diagnostic software package via an integrated external interface. The software helps doctors diagnose conditions by allowing a comparison of a patient’s latest scans with previous images.

GE. This multinational conglomerate is using data coming from sensors attached to equipment in the field, like wind turbines, to monitor their health and provide diagnostics and prognostic insights. By analyzing the data coming from the sensors and feeding them into virtual representations of the equipment, GE identifies when a piece of equipment is ready for preventive maintenance, in turn prolonging its life. The data can also be used to ensure maintenance is performed only when needed. If, for example, a part on a piece of equipment is slated to be replaced every 4 years, data generated might show that in fact the part can last 7 years, dramatically reducing operating costs.

How IoT is Changing How Manufacturing Is Done

On the plant floor, IoT creates a network linking a variety of equipment, parts, meters, automation controls, tools, workers, trucks, smart shelves and others. Every product, in fact, can be given a digital identity so the company knows the exact location and condition of the products in real time, throughout the supply chain. The information generated can then be used to:

Track assets. With real-time, continuous visibility into the location and status of assets like parts, fixtures, tooling and goods in transit, manufacturers can optimize points along the supply chain and accurately anticipate issues that need intervention.

Monitor equipment. IoT allows for regular “health checks” of equipment to help minimize downtime and avoid the risk of failure. Sensors automatically trigger alerts and initiate the appropriate response from maintenance immediately when any issues occur.

Ensure quality. IoT makes it possible to monitor items down to a very granular level. Sensors embedded into a torque wrench used in assembling a complex part can capture the precise amount of torque applied to a part, the wrench that was used, when the wrench was last calibrated, and the employee who used it. With this information faults can be detected in real time and flaws in either the wrench or the product are identified and can be resolved immediately. Historical data can reveal patterns that might indicate production issues that can then be improved.

Improve safety. When shop floor workers use wearable technologies (think Fitbit), they receive real time machine and production information to help them anticipate and resolve issues before they’re compounded. These devices can also be designed to detect obstacles in the path of a forklift, for example, greatly minimizing the risk of injury.

These are just a few of the examples of the kinds of monitoring that are possible with IoT on the shop floor. Keep in mind though that all this data has little value unless it’s analyzed and used to make better decisions.

Talk to a Wipfli manufacturing expert to more clearly understand how IoT can be used in your manufacturing operation to identify hidden patterns, predict future events, forecast usage and costs, and, in the process, improve productivity, quality and profitability.


Mark Stevens
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