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How manufacturers are innovating with the Internet of Things

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible)

The Internet of Things (IoT) has the potential to revolutionise the way companies across various industries carry out their business, and organisations are rapidly getting on board. According to an IDC survey, over half of respondents said they intended to do something within IoT in the next twelve months, although the data also showed that current adoption is low.

Manufacturing has been picked out by many experts as one of the industries set to benefit significantly from IoT. The industry has reacted accordingly, being forecast to spend big on the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) this year. Making the most of these capex dollars, however, is another matter. Manufacturers may have many qualities, but the variety of specialist skills needed to successfully design, deploy and manage an IoT solution are ones they’re not likely to possess. For those manufacturers looking to take advantage of increased productivity, reduced wastage and real-time insight, all is not lost; within the channel there are a number of partners who can fill the manufacturer’s skills gap and help them to take advantage of Industry 4.0.

What do manufacturers stand to gain?

Greater efficiency is a core rationale for many IIoT uses. Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) is a key objective for all manufacturers and requires that machinery, materials, staff and energy are all used as efficiently as possible, ultimately reducing costs for manufacturers and making a real difference to their bottom line.

For manufacturers thinking about adopting IoT, their first thought is most likely predictive maintenance. The unplanned downtime that results from machinery unexpectedly breaking down is not only incredibly disruptive but also very costly. IoT solutions can overcome this, with sensors placed on machinery, feeding back data to engineers that can be used to plan pre-emptive maintenance and prevent breakdowns before they happen.

IIoT solutions can also help manufacturers stop defects before they happen. In ‘dumb’ factories, mistakes only become apparent when Quality Control pick products off the line, at which point costly raw materials have already been contaminated and thus wasted. IIoT solutions can be deployed to analyse sensor data, with alarms and rules set to prevent mistakes from happening when unusual conditions arise.

Another major benefit of IIoT solutions to the manufacturing industry is that they can vastly improve the logistical operations of its factories. IoT tracking devices can be fitted to raw materials upon arrival at the factory, allowing managers not only to track the movement of said materials around the factory warehouse but also through the entire production process. By virtue of this, factory operators can achieve complete visibility of the factory’s input and output, helping them identify potential bottlenecks in production and providing them with precise insight on order. Combine such capabilities with an IoT enabled transport provider and manufacturers arm themselves with the ability to clearly communicate with customers on the state of their orders and much more precisely regarding delivery dates of goods.

It’s about data, data, data.

Unfortunately, making a success of IIoT solutions is not as simple as attaching some sensors and watching the insights roll in. Across a single factory you will encounter numerous processes, various types of machinery and a multiplicity of different types of data. Making all of these different data sets make sense in relation to one another is difficult, but without doing so useful insight is unobtainable.

Developing such skills in house is a daunting task. Not only is upskilling employees to deploy IoT technology time consuming and decidedly expensive, there’s no guarantee that you won’t experience a degree of staff turnover – thanks to a skills shortage, individuals with technological capabilities in manufacturing are in high demand – resulting in you being sent right back to square one.

Fortunately, the IT channel possesses the expertise to deploy IIoT solutions and effectively manage the resulting data. By turning to the channel, manufacturers avoid having to invest in in-house skills and, better yet, are able to share the cost of developing IIoT solutions with the wider industry. Thanks to the channel, manufacturers now have access to a range of off the shelf solutions that have been created to help manufacturers collect and centrally manage their data in a practical way from the variety of sources encountered in the manufacturing environment. Software reorganises the data structure to make it completely transparent, with data sources appearing as relational tables that offer users actionable insights into what is happening on the factory floor.

For example, Tech Data partner Information Builders has worked with Tata Steel to combine business intelligence with integrated technology to identify and smooth out constraints on manufacturing efficiency with their WebFOCUS platform. Working in some of the world’s most dynamic markets, the value to Tata Steel of being able to see the progress of inventory along the production line is incredibly valuable. Using an intranet-based business intelligence application called RAPID, information is drawn from a variety of data sources to measure the manufacturing operation on a point-by-point basis. These data sets are then collated by DataMigrator integration engine and presented in a clear and interpretable manner through specially designed InfoApps – a highly interactive ‘app store-like’ method of presenting content such as data visualisations, charts, graphs and reports. This provides Tata Steel’s workers, from the CEO to local employees, near real-time visibility of operations and allowing them to match what’s happening on the factory floor with pending orders and customer priorities to help them take informed actions. The end result is more effective use of raw materials and processes, ultimately driving greater efficiencies across Tata Steel’s factories and engaging staff in a more meaningful way.

Embracing the Industrial IoT

The benefits of the IIoT are more than theoretical, with some encouraging real-world use cases demonstrating the innovative solutions the channel can offer manufacturers and the significant impact they can have on those manufacturers’ operations. For manufacturers to be in possession of all, if many, of the skills necessary to initiate a successful IoT deployment is highly unlikely. With challenges such as collecting, managing and interpreting the data or ensuring that systems are secure, there are plenty of opportunities for partners to augment manufacturers’ expertise and plug skills gaps. Better still, manufacturers can be more assured of the fact that their investment in IIoT won’t be wasted on solutions that don’t work, taking advantage of the shared lessons and cost of development across the entire industry.

Abel Smit, IoT Consulting and Customer Success Director Europe, Tech Data Advanced Solutions (opens in new tab)
Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible

Abel Smit, IoT Consulting & Customer Success Director at Tech Data Europe.