May 09, 2014

IoT will change the way manufacturing is performed today

The way in which communication is perceived and performed has drastically changed over the past few years. Twenty or so years ago making an international call was considered such a high cost that even large conglomerates had a quota for them. Personal calls made internationally were almost prohibitively expensive. Now with voice and video calling over the internet international communication practically free. However, it still remains an expensive affair on the mobile/traditional phone network.

The above presented example is just a small testimony of what internet has been able to achieve for its users over the years and a mere glimpse of what it is capable of achieving in the future. But the present state of change will accelerate and gain proliferation in all segments of day to day life, ranging from agriculture to medicines, from production to politics. It is the Internet of Things or the IoT that will make this change possible, where IP enabled devices coupled with diverse hardware, sensory and software capabilities are making the world a smaller and highly connected place. It is this Internet of Things which comprises and connects all things animate and inanimate that can be considered the driver of Industrial Revolution 4.0. Today we will understand how IoT coupled with robust process equipment and software applications like the MES can help manufacturers achieve profitability and competitive advantage like never before. We will also reflect on the challenges and hurdles that might present themselves on the road to implementing a full scale IoT plan and the benefits and opportunities that lie ahead especially for early adopters of this disruptive technology package.

IoT simply put is the phenomenon where ‘things’ both living and non-living can communicate their status, needs and issues to the internet through intelligent sensors which transmit this information to the internet via a wired or a wireless network. Due to their connectivity with the internet, these ‘things’ can be interconnected to each-other, thereby making an ‘Internet of Things’. This interconnectivity of disparate objects over the internet presents a huge opportunity for businesses around the world, especially manufacturing. It relies heavily on data to and from the production process, plants and supply-chain partners. Imagine a scenario where a piece of equipment which has detected a problem with its motor, communicates to the third party service provider through the internet to schedule a maintenance visit urgently. At the same time advises the MES application of the plant to re-route the production scheduled on it, while simultaneously alerting the shift-supervisor and the plant manager. Going further with the example, now the MES knows that the production has to be re-routed, so it dynamically configures the current schedule, adjusting the flow based on priority and shuts down the equipment with the motor problem while updating the time for maintenance.

As communicated by the third party vendor, the MES then informs of these changes made to other equipment and material which was allocated for the machine with problem is now automatically re-allocated to other production lines. Recipes are changed and production carries on effectively, with the incident being recorded for further analysis by the system’s SPC module. Imagine all this was performed automatically without a single piece of product going out of specification and failing quality compliance standards. Also imagine the potential of this technology considering that such corrective and preventive actions can be taken not only in one plant but due to the ability to communicate over the internet and the capability of recording and reporting non-conformance events, similar actions can be taken in all plants of the manufacturer globally.IoT in this case not only integrates the supply chain of one plant, but helps preserve the value in the entire global supply chain, as it can capture and initiate broad based actions and record use and business cases to ensure best practices are followed globally across the entire business.

The above illustration is just the tip of the iceberg, the potential that IoT has to offer when coupled with smart sensors, intelligent MES/ERP applications and Big Data Analytics is truly mind boggling and goes way beyond the activity of manufacturing itself. It encompasses global production and supply chains and even minute analysis of customer trends, all translating to faster cycle time, lower waste, higher inventory turnovers, improved efficiency and better economic profits than ever. In the past production process and devices employed have remained separated where only a few devices actually actively participate in the process, that too due to their PLC or SCADA interface. All this is about to change as IoT provides devices employed in the process to become part of the actual process, making the process and process-equipment a single entity. When devices communicate freely through their various sensors, applications like the MES can capture out of specification events proactively and save a whole lot of waste. Then by communicating these events both inside and outside the plant, deliveries or maintenance can be mobilized from all corners of the world, that too in real-time.

MES application will play a crucial role if IoT is to succeed in the manufacturing scenario, as these applications will help record every event and change made. Later enable analysts and personnel to make sense of the crude data collected through advanced analytics. MES applications will also allow for increased transparency/visibility when it comes to customers and suppliers, simply called the global supply chain, as these applications will capture consumer related data from the ERP and analyze trends. Then use the information obtained from the trend analysis to predict demand and thereby help procurement of material and parts required from the supplier end. Also based on the orders entered in real-time the MES application will modify the complex process flow and enable JIT deliveries every single time. Also IoT will allow various stakeholders to access and assess the information from the production plant/plants via their mobile devices and practice faster control and better management of the entire operation, irrespective of their physical location.

But to achieve such type of synchronization a large scale effort would be required across the value chain where manufacturers would be required to procure smart devices with sensors and retro-fit old devices with new sensors. The next challenge is being able to deploy the IP enabled applications capable of extracting information from the devices and being able to develop the analytical muscle required to derive true value of the enormous amounts of data being generated and subsequently recorded by the applications, such as the PLC/SCADA, MES and ERP. Another challenge is to standardize the IoT and its use over supplier and customer processes to derive greater value from the communication which will happen 24X7, among devices and personnel scattered across the entire value chain.

It is important to realize that IoT will deliver value only if used in combination with smart devices, intelligent software and capable analytics teams, it will fail to perform if any one pillar of the desired architecture is not up to the mark. The main challenge is not even related to these technologies and the capital investment which may be required to achieve them, but it is about the mind-set of the top management towards this disruptive trend. Like any other disruptive trend the early adopters will have the highest exposure to risk and thereby will have the highest chance of gaining returns. It is important that manufacturers which are located at the center of their value chains understand the strategic importance of the IoT and also the need to couple it with better software and personnel. Manufacturers need to view IoT as a potential game changer and consider it as a strategic weapon to achieve competitive advantage. Imagine if your plants can save 30% energy costs as compared to your competitors just because your equipment and production plants can sense the environmental conditions and then change the way in which they consume power and resources. MES application based on these conditions can dynamically model or change the process flow to achieve efficiencies every time such a climatic change occurs.These savings resulting from IoT coupled with the overall effectiveness it can deliver in process management has the capability of providing substantial economic profits, due to which IoT, MES and Analytical muscle should be considered seriously when discussing the strategy mix.

In recent articles we have discussed the future of applications like the MES and the way manufacturing and the way it is managed has become more complex and data driven and how manufacturing no longer remains a single entity but is actually more collaborated than ever before. The Internet of Things will also affect the way manufacturing shapes up in the future and its impact will be from major to revolutionary, the trends are pretty visible now itself. Manufacturers need to realize this and start building capabilities starting now, where they carefully select their software applications and personnel, keeping in mind that the revolution is coming! For MES application the internet of things means only one thing, they are needed to be more efficient than ever, with better ability to store and manipulate Big Data, and increased ability to interface with devices & other applications over the internet. IoT will definitely change the way manufacturing is performed today, what remains to be seen is how fast will this happen and how current software vendors for applications like the MES will cope with this revolution!