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The Internet of Things Comes to Manufacturing

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What that means for you now, and in the years ahead

When it comes to manufacturing, IoT developments can certainly impact what you make. The use of IoT-enabled devices – everything from cars to consumer appliances to healthcare equipment – is exploding.

Actually, that might be an understatement. According to a Gartner Research report published in February, “8.4 billion connected things will be in use worldwide in 2017, up 31 percent from 2016, and will reach 20.4 billion by 2020. Total spending on endpoints and services will reach almost $2 trillion in 2017.”

So, chances are pretty good that, sooner or later, the things you produce will have the ability to communicate with other things, and to share data. The application of IoT technology is spreading that quickly.

But no matter what you manufacture, the Internet of Things is certainly going to change how you make it. In fact, that’s already happening. Walk around your own factory floor and you’ll see examples – large and small – of how IoT is transforming your processes, improving efficiencies, reducing downtime.

That doesn’t mean your manufacturing facilities are going to run without human oversight next week or even next year. But even if “smart manufacturing” (what they’re calling Industrie 4.0 in Germany) is still perhaps decades away, what’s happening in the realm of IoT deserves your attention today.

Let’s take a few minutes to talk about IoT as it relates to manufacturing, and separate what’s real today from what’s possible tomorrow.

Look around, and this is what you’ll see happening now…

  • IoT adoption is up across a wide range of industries. New use cases are being developed seemingly every day, but already retailers are gaining benefits from better store operations; healthcare providers are seeing improvements in clinical care; utilities are creating smart water and status systems.
  • Improvements in communication are turbo-charging the proliferation of IoT applications. As the reliability and availability of wireless networks improves, and telecommunication costs drop, one of the more stubborn barriers to adoption is being knocked down.
  • For manufacturers in particular, IoT technology is becoming part of the production value chain. IoT makes it easier to track, monitor and manage assets. Food (and other commodities) can be traced across the supply chain, from point of origin to point of sale. Other processes are also seeing real gains in efficiency.

But manufacturers are also discovering the limits of what current IoT technology can do for them.

Regardless of what is being produced, manufacturing is never a simple process. Supply chains are notoriously complex and difficult to manage well. As IoT technologies pervade the factory floor, the realities of that environment are creating four challenges that will have to be solved if the dream of a fully networked manufacturing ecosystem is going to be realized:

  • How to assure the interoperability of systems. Manufacturing processes typically have numerous phases and interdependent pieces. Interoperability is proving to be daunting.
  • How to guarantee real-time control and predictability, when thousands of devices communicate at the same time. IoT generates reams of data, and quickly. That information needs to be analyzed and understood.
  • How to prevent disruptors, or competitors, taking control of highly networked production systems. One downside of IoT is that it creates security vulnerabilities that you’ve never had to deal with before. A “wired” factory is, by nature, more open to hacking.
  • How to determine the benefit or return on investment in IoT technologies. In this regard, IoT is like other technologies you’ve adopted. You have to define your goals, determine how you plan to meet them, and create metrics to measure your success.

Given that IoT can be applied to any number of the processes you want to automate, you can expect some quick wins when you begin implementing this powerful technology. But don’t let that fool you. Be patient. IoT will almost certainly transform your operations entirely. Just don’t expect that to happen overnight.

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