The Internet of Things: enabling the era of precision manufacturing

When the Internet of Things is fully implemented in factories, the benefits will be varied and far-reaching.

Remember pictures from old factories where a low-level employee roamed the factory floor on a regular schedule, writing down on a clipboard readings from gauges and other instruments? Who knows when his supervisor ever looked at the results, and what value they actually had to monitoring and optimizing performance.

Fast forward to GE’s Durathon battery factory in Schenectady, where 10,000 sensors on the assembly line — plus others embedded in each battery — report components’ status on a real-time basis, which a manager can read instantly on her iPad as she roams the factory floor — data that can also be shared in real-time with others throughout management, product design and other departments.

This and other prototype factories worldwide are building a new era of precision manufacturing (some call it “Industry 4.0″) that will cut operating costs and resource use, bring about unprecedented integration of the factory with the supply chain and distribution networks, continue companies’ relationships with customers far beyond the point of sale, and even create profitable new revenue streams.

Central to the precision manufacturing transformation is the Internet of Things, which brings two revolutionary changes that will require re-examining long-held assumptions about every aspect of manufacturing policies and procedures:

  • For the first time, we can actually know what’s happening on the assembly line to both products and machinery in real time.
  • That information can be shared, also in real time, with anyone inside or outside the enterprise who could improve their operating efficiency and decision-making with that real-time data.

Think about what a profound transformation that is, allowing us to not only optimize current operations, but do things that were impossible in the past to bring unprecedented precision and waste reduction to manufacturing, such as identifying and removing defective products while they are still on the conveyor belt. We couldn’t do that previously because the products and machinery were inscrutable: we couldn’t probe beneath the surface to uncover problems such as metal fatigue or improper current flow on a circuit board — finding them only when the product failed. As a result, we had to rely on approximations, such as mean time to failure and scheduled maintenance that inflated costs and often missed outlier conditions that might lead to premature failure. Instead, we will have smart products assembled using smart workstations.

We will have real-time data from the entire assembly line to:

In the past, even a highly instrumented factory was usually isolated from the rest of the enterprise, with production data relayed after-the-fact to other key corporate functions, such as finance and product design. Now, because many of the sensors on the factory floor have their own Internet Protocol (IP) numbers and the data is recorded using open standards, information can flow automatically to those other parts of the enterprise, fully integrating the factory to the enterprise for the first time.

Consider Siemens’ factory in Amberg Germany, a recent winner of the European Factory of the Year award, where sensors have been combined with new management software to bring about the hallmark of precision manufacturing — coordination. From a report at IndustryWeek:

“According to Helmuth Ludwig, CEO, Siemens Industry Sector, North America, ‘Previously, the industrial value chain, including product design, production planning, production engineering, production execution and services were implemented separately… Today, new technologies are bringing these worlds together in exciting ways.’ What has made the Amberg plant so successful, he says, is the integration of three specific critical manufacturing technologies: product lifecycle management (PLM), manufacturing execution systems (MES) and industrial automation. … More specifically, notes Raj Batra, president of Siemens Industry’s Automation Division, the future of manufacturing is in finding the perfect junction between these technologies and learning to wield them together as a complete system.

“‘The real issue is defining all of the meet points between those three technologies so you get the sum of that integrated whole,’ he says. ‘And that is what is driving this major shift in manufacturing efficiency.’”

Additionally, Hans Schneider, plant manager at Amberg Electronics Manufacturing Plant (EMP), explains in a report on Siemens’ website: “These systems collect, analyze, and assess manufacturing data — so we always know what’s going on at the plant, and we also have up-to-date information on production figures, downtime, and inventories. Our flexible order logistics system also ensures that the material logistics and production departments are not negatively affected by fluctuations in order volume. This supports efficient capacity planning and high machine-capacity utilization.”

When the Internet of Things is fully implemented in factories, the benefits will be varied and far-reaching:

  • Designing sensors into products, rather than adding them on retroactively, will allow companies to identify defective products immediately, rather than waiting for post-production testing.
  • The built-in sensors will also allow companies to create new revenue streams. They will be able to sell customers real-time data on product operations that will allow the customers to optimize their use, and they may also choose, instead of selling the products, to lease them, with the price determined dynamically based on how much the product is actually used — take, for instance, jet turbines that are now priced on the basis of how many hours they actually operate.
  • The product design cycle will accelerate. Companies will be able to monitor a product’s actual usage in the field, then implement more rapid upgrades.
  • “Just-in-time” supply chains will become even more efficient as real-time production data triggers resupply orders, just as distribution systems will become more closely integrated on the other end of the production cycle.

The technologies to allow development of precision manufacturing have evolved to the point that the major remaining obstacles to full implementation are only further reductions in their size and energy demands.

Far more problematic are the attitudinal shifts that fully capitalizing on the Internet of Things will require. While the IoT will allow real-time sharing of data by all who need it, it remains to be seen whether management will move to break down departmental silos to share data on a real-time basis and will choose to give rank-and-file assembly line personnel access to relevant information that would help them work more efficiently.

The Internet of Things promises to eliminate massive information gaps about real-time conditions on the factory floor that have made it impossible to fully optimize production and eliminate waste in the past. Adding in manufacturing innovations such as nanotechnology and 3-D printing, and the era of precision manufacturing may soon be commonplace.

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