The Foundational Interaction between Manufacturing and the Internet of Things

Dec. 2, 2013
While the Internet of Things is bound to lead manufacturing into a new era, generating superior gains in productivity and operational efficiencies, the whole Internet of Things ecosystem itself will also benefit from the new smart products, vastly different from their non-IT enabled predecessors.

Does manufacturing actually matter?

This could have been a question asked of American Founding Father and first U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton who stated in his Report on Manufactures submitted to the House of Representatives on December 5, 1791 that “not only the wealth; but the independence and security of a country, appear to be materially connected with the prosperity of manufactures.”

This question has certainly not lost the currency it had in the eighteenth century. It can indeed be found, as of the date of this article, in a prominent screen on the “Manufacturing for Growth” section of the website of the World Economic Forum, which provided elements of answer in a press release of May 2, 2013, and highlighted the manufacturing sector as “a critical driver of growth, prosperity and innovation”. This is the same type of response that the Metropolitan Policy Program at the US Brookings Institution offered to a comparable question (Why Does Manufacturing Matter?) in February 2012: “Manufacturing is the major source of commercial innovation and is essential for innovation in the service sector.” Manufacturing is also identified as an overwhelming source of innovation in the landmark report from the inaugural U.S. Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Steering Committee on Capturing Domestic Competitive Advantage in Advanced Manufacturing, which also underscored that “Manufacturing contributes disproportionately to U.S. innovation.”

Interestingly enough, while the Hamiltonian goals tied to prosperity are still front and center, manufacturing’s innovation role is increasingly put forward to underscore its importance for economic vitality and dynamism.

The relationship between manufacturing and innovation is one of the strategic areas that are central to the work of the Advanced Manufacturing Steering Committee 2.0, which President Obama launched in September 2013.  

Internet-of-Things technologies to foster Advanced Manufacturing
Back in 2007, in a report on the Business Value of Plant Floor Visibility, the Aberdeen Group had already noted that “70 percent of manufacturers are focusing on plant floor data initiatives to increase the effectiveness of performance improvement programs and increase visibility into operational performance; 65 percent of manufacturers are currently planning to automate plant floor data collection and 55 percent of manufacturers are planning on presenting the data with a dashboard solution.” The trend is accelerating and widening with the insertion of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies

In a May 2013 roundtable between executives at Robert Bosch and experts at McKinsey on “Manufacturing and the Internet of Things”, the focus was on “the technology-driven changes that promise to trigger a new industrial revolution.” Manufacturing, logistics and supply chain were seen as being radically transformed by IoT technologies.

Thanks to a myriad of innovative emerging technologies, time and space are getting compressed. Factories, assembly plants and other manufacturing sites are becoming more responsive, growingly customer-centered and globally integrated. Sensing and actuating devices, communications networks and software applications, core elements of any IoT solution, are combined to anticipate and respond in real-time

IoT technologies are transforming manufacturing into an activity inherently made of plastic and elastic systems and processes.

On the other hand, smart-manufactured products permit the development of an interlinked society, which takes full advantage of IoT technologies.

Advanced Manufactured Goods to enable an IoT-powered Society
While IoT is bound to lead manufacturing into a new era, generating superior gains in productivity and operational efficiencies, the whole IoT ecosystem itself will also benefit from the new smart products, vastly different from their non-IT enabled predecessors.

“Computers on wheels”, a.k.a. cars and other vehicles, are foretelling the changes that are going to take place across industries worldwide. We do not need to wait for driverless cars to understand the impact of IoT technologies on transportation. For instance, over the years, on-board diagnostics (OBD) capabilities have facilitated the development of the vehicle telematics industry, generating a wide range of applications from fleet tracking to pay-as-you-drive insurance.

Imagine household appliances manufactured with the same type of built-in possibilities in mind. Modern washing machines already have problem diagnostic capabilities, but what if sensors and actuators were routinely embedded to remotely track (and possibly improve) the performance of the appliance over its lifetime in real time? The manufacturer -- it could be a third party -- would know, before the user, the potential issues before they happen. Monitoring, repair and upgrade contracts could be offered, modulated by the availability of IoT technologies. This type of appliance could also very well be inserted, via appropriate interfaces, in the security perimeter of the house (appliance is either started to simulate human presence or shut down for safety purposes). Access to these data repositories could also be given to contractors the likes of market research firms, customer service companies and other polling organizations.
Of course, the multifold options are certainly not limited to household appliances but include everyday objects. As a matter of fact, the injection of IoT capabilities (tags, sensors, etc.) in these objects is blurring away the frontier between smart and non-smart.

All these scenarios suppose a favorable legal and regulatory framework, the implementation of standards and protocols (for interoperability), a strong software component to permit real-time upgrades and repairs, see, for example, firmware-over-the-air (FOTA) capabilities) and, very importantly, that products are designed accordingly or “designed for intelligence”. This does not mean that the manufacturer must have a clear vision of the services that can be provided off this “intelligence”. All is needed is a launching pad for IoT-based ingenuity to take off.

The fundamental relationship between manufacturing and IoT is tight; and getting tighter. Manufacturing is both an IoT beneficiary and catalyst. New industries, and along with them new laws, regulations and educational programs will be born of the countless possibilities promised by smart products.

Times are obviously markedly different since Hamilton, contrasting manufacturing and agriculture, was fighting off “respectable patrons of opinions, unfriendly to the encouragement of manufactures.” However, manufacturing, especially in its present “advanced” form, rightfully remains a top strategic priority. Its critical and pivotal role as agent of change and innovation, considerably amplified through IoT technologies, is the cornerstone of sustainable and vibrant economic success.

Alain Louchez is the Managing Director of the Center for the Development and Application of Internet of Things Technologies (CDAIT), Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia, United States. Chairman of the Steering Committee for the international Workshop on Internet of Things organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) on February 18, 2014 in Geneva, Switzerland.