The conversation around the Internet of Things (IoT) has shifted from the ‘what’ to the ‘how’.
A majority of manufacturers are fully aware that advances in automation, software and connectivity can deliver a great amount of productivity and efficiency benefits to their operations and are now looking for ways to apply such technologies. But such is the all-encompassing nature of industrial IoT that it can be hard to see the wood for the trees.
Here we discuss some of the essential applications of IoT in manufacturing which use the building blocks of core products such as sensors, wired and wireless connectors, while looking at how these innovations are helping manufacturers to transform the way that they design, build and maintain their products.
A small to medium-sized manufacturing plant might contain hundreds of operator tools, in an assortment of shapes and sizes, that are used for a variety of functions. For a large factory, that number could rise to thousands.
Now imagine if all of these hammers, drills, torque wrenches and shears could always be located in an instant, and that they might never be erroneously used outside of a specific set of operational parameters. That’s the promise of IoT-enabled connected tooling, delivering enormous improvements in operator productivity.
Airbus and Bosch have led the way in this area, with the Factory of the Future initiative utilizing connected drilling, measuring and tightening tools. These procedures, in aerospace plants, can take place over a handful of work cells and can be performed by different operators.
Other manufacturing companies have followed suit. Employees at GE Aviation have, for example, been combining WiFi-enabled torque wrenches with mixed reality headsets to ensure that bolts are tightened most optimally. It is all about enhancing operator productivity, fostering product quality and eliminating expensive re-works.
Manufacturing, by its very nature, requires a whole lot of energy, and that in turn can account for a large percentage of operating costs. That’s why factory owners and managers are increasingly turning to IoT-based construction management systems to connect sensors, actuators, controllers and other equipment over one IP backbone, enabling the monitoring of energy usage, lighting, HVAC and fire safety systems.
This data can also be combined with information from broader datasets such as weather forecasting and financial information – such as the price of electricity and other utilities – to give a far more rounded view of construction management. This sort of architecture is finding increasing adoption in manufacturing environments, to make buildings smarter, more sustainable and more efficient.
Faster and more flexible production lines may be the trick to meeting customer demand, but there can also be a negative impact on quality control if monitoring isn’t up to scratch. These days, as plants seem to automation to replace tasks such as manual inspection, new technology is being used to ensure there is not any deviation from quality parameters.
Increasingly, the function of replacing the human eye has been performed by IoT-enabled high-pixel camera vision systems in combination with other devices such as acoustic sensors, along with high-performance image processing software.
These can be used to identify defects such as size, shape or finish, and also to confirm the accuracy and readability of labels, barcodes or QR codes. This information can then be looped back to earlier stages in the production line allowing manufacturing managers to identify and classify the main cause of the problem before rectification action can be taken.
Over time, artificial intelligence can be applied to learn from feedback and continuously refine and improve the manufacturing process.
This sort of vision system is being utilized across manufacturing to monitor the quality of a broad range of products including electronic devices, consumer goods and metal finished parts.
For example, the automotive component supplier Getrag has been using a vision system to inspect teeth and clutch body parts, supplying engineers using real-time data on non-conforming parts, and trends emerging from the manufacturing process. The aim is to enhance product quality, reduce costly re-work and enhance brand reputation.
The benefits of IoT for manufacturers don’t end once products have reached despatch. Indeed, the delivery and logistics function has become one of the primary beneficiaries of digitalization, with asset-tracking sensors able to offer real-time information on asset location, the surrounding temperature, humidity and motion.
These smart logistics systems today benefit from a broad range of connectivity options delivered through low-power, wide-area cellular and noncellular technologies such as LoRa and Narrowband IoT.
These networks stream sensor data to the cloud safely and seamlessly, offering a breadth of performance capabilities around latency, data rates and operational range, based on what is required.
The latest supply chain logistics software means manufacturers can track the movement of their assets via easy-to-read dashboards on devices such as laptops and smartphones, providing managers a comprehensive view of the outbound logistics function.
Manufacturing is expected to be one of the leading industries adopting asset tracking, with the food and beverage sector in particular keen to use it to move perishable goods faster and more efficiently, and with less damage.