From cars to refrigerators and from smartwatches to passport chips, the “Internet of Things” (IoT) is no longer a vision of the future, but a part of daily life.
But IoT devices aren’t just putting screens and voices into the gadgets we already love, they’re having a serious impact on billion dollar industries from the inside out. The manufacturing industry for example, is one of the many industries set to be revolutionized by connected devices.
IoT devices like the Amazon Echo are already making waves in consumer households and office spaces. But how can such technology be applied in the manufacturing arena?
Well, enterprises such as Caterpillar recently partnered with an industrial analytics company to help Caterpillar customers better understand and monitor the health of their equipment, and to help Caterpillar monitor and optimize their vehicles and products out in the field. Siemens on the other hand, have deployed connected devices and robotics inside their Siemens AG plant, turning it into a “smart factory”. The plant, which produces products for the likes of BMW, claims to be roughly 75 percent automated.
But Caterpillar and Siemens aren’t alone. The Industrial IoT (iIoT) has already begun, with “Industry 4.0” and a “fourth industrial revolution”, triggering manufacturers to spend $178 billion on IoT technology in 2016, with $102.5 billion of that going directly toward manufacturing operations.
What’s more is, that investment is expected to increase, with iIoT experts forecasting that, by the year 2020, at least 15 percent of all IoT spending in the U.S. will be in the industrial sector. In the Asian market (excluding Japan), that proportion is expected to exceed 30 percent.
If you’re wondering why this shift is occurring, and why billions of dollars are being injected to make the shift possible, here are five ways IoT devices are going to take manufacturing processes to the next level.
Manufacturers are finding that developing an iIoT system can reduce costs, increase quality, and give them a competitive advantage. A 2016 report from Verizon shows that two-thirds of the manufacturers they surveyed who were early adopters of IoT technologies said that such methods were “now critical to competitive advantage”.
An October 2017 article in Manufacturing Business Technology Magazine stated that IoT can provide manufacturers with a competitive advantage “in multiple ways, ranging from simpler optimizations in the bottom line to highly sophisticated business transformations.” The article points out how IoT can improve process automation “by automating the event detection and processing, and by automatically triggering the appropriate workflows in the back-end systems.”
Marketers are starting to use IoT devices to gather customer data for their personalization efforts, and manufacturers are learning how to apply customer data in much the same way. The previously-cited Verizon report showed that more than three-fourths of manufacturers surveyed found that IoT increased their insights into customer behavior and preferences.
However, the ability to match products to preferences requires manufacturers to maintain a high level of flexibility. Just as the assembly line method produced “one size fits all products”, IoT promises customers that they can receive custom-made products at affordable prices. Some manufacturers, like Nike and Motorola, are employing IoT-derived customer databases to create custom products at low costs and with short turnaround times.
Manufacturers are also learning how to apply IoT systems to reduce risks of loss in various departments. These systems can help manufacturers track data ranging from internal security to material flow to worker safety and productivity. The Verizon report showed that two-thirds of early-adopting manufacturers surveyed said that they used IoT to evaluate risks, protect assets, and improve safety measures for its workers.
An October 2017 article in Financial Times showed how IoT-linked wearables helped improve workers safety and enhance communication of critical data between workers and managers. SmartCap Technologies of Australia has developed a “fatigue monitoring solution” for truck drivers and heavy equipment operators. The device in the driver's cap measures brain waves and detects “microsleeps” that could be signs of fatigue, which could lead to accidents, injuries, and costly losses.
One of the biggest improvements that IoT has brought to process automation is in quality control. IoT sensors can monitor product quality at nearly every step of the production line, and can alert quality control staff when something doesn't meet their standards.
This use of IoT can prevent defective products from reaching the consumer, which can also prevent accidents, product recalls, and costly lawsuits. In the Verizon study, 61 percent of early-adopters surveyed said that they are using IoT to improve the reliability or performance of their products.
Developers at IBM have created an IoT system to monitor factory quality control. The system, called Cognitive Visual Inspection, is based on their Watson platform and uses UHD cameras and cognitive recognition software to spot scratches, pinholes, and other flaws in computer hardware components.
The market demand for specific products can change in an instant. Volatile markets, political instability, emerging technologies, and fashion trends can cause a product to go from “in demand” to “out of style” faster than ever. Traditional manufacturers often lack both the access to timely data and the organizational flexibility to react to those changes.
The development of “smart factories”, an offshoot of Industrial IoT, allows manufacturers both the access to consumer data in real-time, and the flexibility to change their product lineup to meet consumer demand. Factories in various locations that produce different products can alter their production schedules to meet orders, without slowing down or waiting to change their processes.
In less than five years, manufacturers have found a wealth of applications for iIoT. These technologies have changed the entire process of manufacturing, from the C-suite to the factory floor. iIoT has also helped manufacturers reduce costs, improve product quality, cater to their customers, as well as protect and empower their workers.
This new industrial revolution changes the question from “How can iIoT benefit manufacturers?”, to “How can manufacturers best apply these technologies to differentiate themselves from their competitors?”
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