It’s 10 p.m. on a Friday. The production line is running full-tilt to meet the commitment you’ve made to a key customer. On a die-cutter, Sensor 8a records a malfunction and, in seconds, sends the information via SMS text to the technician on call. Within the hour, they’re on the factory floor fixing the problem.
Internet of Things (IoT) in manufacturing
Just as smart devices have become more common in the consumer space, they’re proliferating in the manufacturing environment, enabling businesses to operate more nimbly and efficiently. Decisions once made by people can now be settled autonomously or semi-autonomously by cyber-physical systems or individual machines.
“[IoT] allows us to do things that previously would have been very difficult, like monitoring, sensing, looking at situations, automating the triggering of special conditions and really allowing people to work more efficiently,” said Tony Pereira, Mitel’s Vice President, Business Accelerator. “So the secret is, how do you enable the human element into IoT? How do you give machines a voice?”
IoT + communications tools = collaboration
“Collaboration is most important to manufacturing companies,” Pereira said. “Here you have multiple teams all over the world who need to share information in real time.” And it’s rich data they’re sharing, such as drawings, CAD schematics and video.
With APIs, unified communications can bridge the gap between the IoT (meaning sensors, motion detectors, alarms and the like) and the humans who need to problem-solve. It doesn’t matter what platform they’re using — desktop, mobile, web or phone. For instance, colleagues wrestling with an equipment failure could hold an impromptu conference, patching in a camera focused on the machinery so everyone involved can be “in the room.”
IoT + supply chain management = positive customer experience
Real-time communications are also important in maintaining an efficient supply chain. “Although lean manufacturing can certainly reduce inventories, manufacturers will need to coordinate with more and more suppliers — often globally, and with longer transport times, more manufacturing steps and significantly more parties,” Andreas Tschiesner, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company, said on the company’s website.
“For those not using IoT, there is little transparency when it comes to the supply chain process,” adds Hitachi Ventara’s Chief Technology Strategist Greg Knierieman in TechTarget’s IoT Agenda. “Everything takes time, including checking each product as it’s being developed for quality and efficiency to meet required quotas and deadlines. Analyzing IoT data in real time allows a plant to work smarter, not harder.”
For example, raw materials in transport are digitally tagged, allowing the manufacturer to know their location at all times. If a problem arises, systems employees notify production and, in some cases, even alert the customer. Within the IoT, that kind of end-to-end transparency is expected.
Over time, devices and process management will coalesce. “Traditional production systems embody a collection of separate tools bound together loosely by the rules governing their application,” write McKinsey analysts Vineet Gupta and Rainer Ulrich. “Usually, these rules are, at best, defined only on a paper document or a corporate intranet site. In the future, such links will be much tighter and more automated, and fast digital connections will allow the whole system to operate as a seamless, cohesive whole.”
Data also flows from the customer side. Online shoppers affect inventory when their demand for an item suddenly increases. This information is communicated to the designer and manufacturer, who can decide whether to change production to meet the unanticipated need.
IoT + predictive maintenance = lower costs
What if a piece of equipment could “tell” a production supervisor when it will need a new part? IoT enables predictive maintenance and creates more efficient management of assets, including people, across time and distance. The result is less production downtime and lower labor costs.
For example, feedback from IoT devices serving a corporate tower’s HVAC system can communicate equipment problems and inefficiencies. By catching poor asset performance earlier, energy consumption improves and costs are reduced.
Predictive maintenance can also improve safety and operations on the factory floor. Keeping workers safer translates into higher production, not to mention higher employee retention rates.
Are your communications ready for IoT?
Within this more complex and fast-paced environment, the need for collaboration to reduce downtime and meet the customers’ needs is crucial.
That’s why communications should be embedded into the applications used by manufacturers, explains Pereira. “Ninety percent of (a manufacturer’s) time is spent in very specialized apps and tools, using video, multimedia and requiring screen sharing.” A communications solution must be able to connect geographically dispersed employees and allow easy sharing of rich data from sensors on the factory floor to the executive suite.
For manufacturers especially, a unified communications solution can help bridge this gap. An open, cloud-based system that’s highly adaptable and capable of integrating APIs across platforms enables them to maximize the ubiquitous, real-time connectivity of the IoT.