5 Ways the Internet of Things Will Transform Manufacturing

From Plymouth to TeslaIf you think the rise of the Internet over the past 45 years has been awe-inspiring… buckle up and keep your eyes on the road ahead. The Internet is now merging together with the real world at a meteoric pace and grand scale.

You are no doubt familiar with this “marriage” between the Internet and real world.  It’s the Internet of Things, or IoT.  It’s a whole new revolution that is changing entire industries in countless ways.

IoT is not a revolutionary breakthrough that just popped up yesterday, of course. Take IoT in transportation and home automation, for example.  For years now, we’ve been checking traffic online in real-time before we leave the office… then summoning Uber and Lyft cars via our smartphones… and telling our smart thermostats to dial our homes to a comfy 75 degrees by the time the Uber drops us off at our front door.

Regardless of the many great IoT breakthroughs we’ve seen to date, we have definitely seen nothing yet.  In fact, IoT appears to be not just in the first inning of the ballgame, but perhaps the first pitch.

For our 49 years in manufacturing, our world has been defined by geometries, tolerances, materials, finishes and many other physical constraints.  Much different, of course, from my friends in software whose world is defined by code, data, algorithms and “soft” constraints.

With the rapid evolution of sensors, artificial intelligence, robotics and more, we are seeing our two worlds collide.  The software world and the real world.  The computer-networked Internet with the emerging Internet of physical devices, vehicles, buildings, factories, and anything made of atoms. One day, we’ll even have the Internet of the human body (but let’s digress and stick to the Internet of THINGS for now).

Our physical “things” will be more and more embedded, out-of-the-box, with sensors, electronics, actuators, software, and Internet connectivity all built-in.  The “things” will sense and collect data, and communicate with other “things” and computers.

The benefits and efficiencies that IoT will offer will extend far beyond the consumer products sector, of course. The impact that IoT will have on the manufacturing world, specifically, will be extraordinary.  In fact, it already is extraordinary.

Here at Specialty Design, we have our eyes on the road ahead in terms of Industrial IoT.  I want to outline just 5 examples of how we anticipate IoT will improve manufacturing here at Specialty and across the globe.  Some of these benefits are already happening today, and some will surely come in the near to distant future:

1) You can already start to utilize IoT today.  Sure, you say… IoT provides great benefits and all, but how can a long-established factory justify an investment in IoT that would require re-building the entire facility from the ground up?

I’ve been following an exciting tech start-up that provides a solution — a plug-and-play IoT solution, actually.  They are n-Join, and they have installed their plug-and-play IoT systems with companies that manufacture products ranging from nylon fibers to pudding snacks — including Coca-Cola facilities on multiple continents.

The n-Join team can enter a pre-existing factory, such as a Coca-Cola bottling facility, and enable its desktop-sized device to listen to and analyze 100% of the data from the plant’s diverse machines in real-time.  n-Join’s system can then use that information to provide customized insights and tools to the plant’s management.  Engineers instantly have at their disposal: Unprecedented visibility across the entire production line, forensic and root cause analyses capabilities to detect system bottlenecks and diagnose production problems, and the ability to proactively identify opportunities for preventative maintenance. The fact that an IoT system can be plug-and-play and provide these benefits is amazing.

A self-adapting, autonomous, user-friendly, easy to install, and affordable IoT platform is available not in 5-10 years, but today.  The vision is to “transform any factory into a smart factory.”

2) We’ll continue to make worksites safer.  IoT will provide another layer of safety in dangerous industries that simply can’t have enough safety checks: Mining, oil drilling, foundries, chemical plants, hospitals.  IoT could provide the safety feedback that could prevent another BP deepwater oil drilling tragedy, or a Chilean mining disaster.

One IoT installer, for example, has developed an end-to-end miner safety program that provides real-time communication between miners, machines and operators.  Or, a marketplace of smart air-quality sensors is emerging to alert people about temperature, humidity, dust, carbon dioxide, toxic chemical, and overall air quality abnormalities.

The workers and end users from an IoT-connected factory will benefit from external data in the networked system as well.  A real-time external database could notify sensors in food processing plants to test for recently reported bacterial or viral strains.  E. Coli could be caught in a distribution plant well before being served to a Chipotle customer.  Or weather services and/or ocean sensors could communicate detailed data to shipping captains, and help prevent maritime disaster from storms.

3) We (humans) will be free to work on more value-added projects.  My brother works for IBM Watson, who is on the vanguard of IoT and cognitive computing (or AI) in the medical field.  As he can attest, Watson is already assisting doctors and helping patients in incredible ways.  One way, for example, is to have Watson scan patient data and present anomalies to doctors up-front.  Watson can read the data with lightning speed and compare a patient’s labs to patterns from thousands of other patients’ labs uploaded to the platform. Doctors can then devote time instead to more value-added projects, save hours of time in the process, and patients receive more focused and informed care plans.

If we can utilize IoT and AI to help the complex human body, we will surely utilize these technologies to help improve our equipment and factories as well.  Pharmaceutical researchers, for example, will use IoT, AI and robotics to more efficiently automate the formulation of new drugs.  The net gain of productivity from the automation will reduce time-to-market for drugs, and allow researchers to focus on the most complex and/or urgent medical needs.

At one of their installation sites, n-Join’s system discovered opportunities for significant cost and time savings on critical cleaning operations.  Before their IoT implementation, fluctuating soda concentrations would compromise the cleaning process and lead to overuse of the expensive material, release of contaminated water, and investment of significant time to track down the source and frequency of the problem.  n-Join’s IoT solution provided all the necessary visual data to pinpoint the source of the problem, monitor the problem going forward, eliminate waste, save money, lessen the environmental impact, and allow the engineers to focus on other critical plant improvements.  All thanks to IoT… all in a days work!

4) IoT will monitor the supply chain and provide immense cost savings.  With the proliferation of low-cost, accurate and connected sensors, automated factories will become more and more efficient.  Assembly lines may soon tap into IoT to self-diagnose and repair themselves.  When perishable tooling such as cutters, inserts and drill bits become worn-down, equipment will not only swap out the tooling itself, but connect to its supplier via the network to order replacements.

Tomorrow, the machines themselves will surely interface with commercial parts suppliers, such as McMaster-Carr and Fastenal, through the IoT to order replacement parts.

This all means less down time.  Better asset utilization.  Lower total cost of ownership.  More focused and efficient workforce.  More accurate and actionable performance metrics.  More focused expenditures.  Proactive part replacements and repairs.  And, ultimately – if planned right – a better bottom line.

Factories that leverage IoT AND AI, machine learning, robotics, and/or advanced analytics will realize even greater breathtaking gains in efficiency and output.

One such case study worth checking out is the US $7.6mm annual savings that IBM’s IoT and Analytics groups helped return to oil/gas producer Santos.  Their IoT system records and utilizes both structured and unstructured data to improve their operation and bottom line.

Another interesting IoT application is King’s Hawaiian Bread’s recent investment in 11 specialized, Rockwell programmed, IoT-connected machines, which help them create an automated, connected, efficient facility.  Since installation, the IoT has helped double their bread production.

These are amazing automation breakthroughs, and again, we’re arguably just in Inning 1 in this new era of IoT in manufacturing.

5) IoT will connect us logistically too.  As I noted before, we’re already most familiar with IoT through consumer-centric companies such as Uber and Lyft that have leveraged IoT to redefine how we can efficiently get from A to B.

Fittingly, IoT logistics will ultimately evolve further to seamlessly connect our interconnected factories (whoa, now we’re getting meta).

Add to the mix IoT-connected, self-driving vehicles, trucks, trains, planes and drones, and eventually the entire supply chain will be a fully interconnected system.  Consider how far along UPS’s IoT-connected trucks already are today. UPS’s trucks can each make 150 to 200 stops per day because of their monster-size, globally-connected IoT system. The trucks’ sensors and UPS database work together to minimize left turns, monitor and reduce braking, minimize driving in reverse, and maintain information about every property they ever visit.  UPS saves tens of millions each year on these incremental, logistical improvements.

IoT isn’t just for outdoor logistics either.  Tech start-ups like Indoor Atlas are emerging to address indoor geopositioning.  Raw material, moveable equipment and more will move autonomously throughout factories. IoT connected machines will communicate with IoT connected trucks, and deliver the products out into the sunset (although the sun probably won’t be IoT-connectable, by the way).

It will be one big IoT-connected circle of life. The supply chain will be connected from raw product, to manufacturing, and all the way to the consumer’s doorstep.  Just as the Internet alone has redefined almost every type of human activity, be prepared to adapt to how IoT will redefine the manufacturing process and overall economics in ways we haven’t even conceived yet.

Buckle up!

As the automated machines and driverless cars continue to steer the wheels of industry, this revolution will have a greater and greater impact on society as we know it.  Along with the economic benefits, there will surely be economic consequences as well.

We’d all be wise to keep our eyes focused intently on the IoT-paved road ahead.


photo credit: aldenjewell 1951 Plymouth Assembly Line via photopin (license)

photo credit: Steve JurvetsonFlickr: Tesla Autobots, CC BY 2.0, Link

About Justin Knabb

Justin Knabb is VP of Operations at Specialty Design and Manufacturing, a family-run, US manufacturer of custom home building products as well as custom industrial machinery. Justin is a fan of microbreweries, traveling, Apple products, and Philly cheesesteaks. He can be reached at 1-610-779-1357 or here.