More than 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet by 2020, according to estimates from Gartner Research. Potentially, many of these connected devices will be the manufacturing machines supported by smart controls located on the shop floors of many small and mid-sized manufacturing enterprises. This advance has been underway across industry for many years now. Without even knowing it, many small and mid-sized manufacturers have been on the forefront of the connected workplace for some time.
Machine controls in the manufacturing industries—through their use of legacy distributive numerical control (DNC) technologies—have been connected to other aspects of plant operations (e.g., other machines and other systems) for decades. However, this type of connectivity was often used solely to manage the numerical control (NC) and computer numeric control (CNC) machine programs to ease the burden of distributing those machine programs from the central front office file server to the machines on the factory floor.
With the advent of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and the ability to connect not just machines to other machines, but also machines to parts and—potentially—to humans through wearable devices, the opportunity for leveraging this data for improved insight and customer service will only increase and is the foundation for the factory of the future, often referred to as Industry 4.0, particularly in Europe.
But as more connected devices bring an exponential increase in available data, how will a small to mid-sized manufacturer be able to leverage and take advantage of this data? On a practical level, this data presents an opportunity for the manufacturer to take advantage of increased insight related to machine maintenance. One of the principal issues manufacturers look to solve with this kind of data access and analysis is the ability to better manage the impact when a machine goes down for emergency or unexpected maintenance. Large-scale data analysis is critical to this process because, prior to such unscheduled maintenance, it is likely that the machine has started to produce parts that are out of tolerance. This reduction in quality serves to increase the actual cost of the product as well as the risk of missing a customer delivery date due to the rework required. As a result, the impact of machine maintenance extends well beyond the individual machine or specific maintenance issue and into product quality, capability to deliver and business success.
Using data analysis to imbue a machine with a deeper level of connectedness, the machine could proactively or predictively communicate directly to the shop foreman or maintenance manager (regardless of where he is, or the time of day). This kind of automated trigger or alert, based on past history or trends, could communicate to the person responsible for maintenance that they should monitor the machine more closely or execute a preventive maintenance shop order before more significant maintenance is required.
Imagine the positive impact that it would have on a factory floor operation to never have emergency or unanticipated downtimes. How profitable could an operation be where maintenance would be scheduled during times that would have the least impact to throughput or capacity because it was being conducted on a predictive basis?
This is the practical reality and impact that the IIoT could bring to a small or mid-market manufacturer.
Though some consider IIoT to be a bleeding-edge technology application, it’s really not—as the technologies and processes that enable have been around for decades. It’s the grander possibilities enabled by general advances in computing technologies that have expanded into an IIoT vision. This means that practical and conservative small to mid-sized manufacturers can take advantage of some of these new and emerging technologies without putting their businesses at risk or needing to invest in technologies that are yet unproven.
In this era where the pace of technological change will continue to increase, it has become a business imperative to find practical ways to leverage technology where and, more importantly, when it makes sense. Every manufacturer needs to figure out what issues or low-hanging fruit can be addressed to further streamline operations, increase throughput, minimize bottlenecks, and deliver exceptional customer service to maintain or expand their competitive advantage.