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IoT technologies make inroads into manufacturing

The Internet of Things offers access to data for better decision making. That's why an increasing number of manufacturers are adopting IoT technologies to remain competitive.

The Internet of Things is one of the most buzzed-about areas in technology, and, increasingly, the industrial sector is joining the ranks of those turning to IoT technologies and data analytics to streamline processes and become more competitive.

As Richard Soley, chairman and CEO of the Object Management Group based in Needham, Mass., explains, IoT takes information from a large number of sensors and does real-time predictive analytics on the resulting information, typically comparing it to benchmark data. In turn, that data either has direct impact on sensors or delivers visualizations to decision makers for decision support. That kind of insight makes it clear why IoT holds so much promise for manufacturing.

According to a February report from PwC, the IoT becomes a full ecosystem for manufacturers when they use software, cloud computing (or in-house servers) and analytics tools to turn raw data into meaningful insights, which are then presented on easy-to-use Dashboard interfaces so users can monitor and automate their response actions or remotely control equipment or systems.

This integration ties together people, machines and materials to control manufacturing activity and enable workers on the shop floor to see and act on real-time data. Robert McCutcheon, PwC's U.S. industrial products leader, said that building an ecosystem of combined IoT technologies is very much a topic of conversation in the board room and C-suite. The introduction of cloud technology brings IoT technologies and the connectivity of all these devices to a point where organizations now have access to data and the ability to use, manipulate and analyze that data to make predictions, McCutcheon said. "It introduces all the various means in which information can be captured, but it also allows that connectivity back to more advanced robotics [and] artificial intelligence, so the conversation is around building that ecosystem that combines all of these different technologies."

For example, to monitor the health of machinery in its factory, a manufacturer can add a wireless sensor to each machine that will collect data constantly and upload it to the cloud where it is analyzed. The information about a specific machine can be sent to a worker sporting a hands-free wearable device such as Google Glass; the worker can take action to repair the machine, if necessary.

There's tremendous interest [in IoT]. We're being approached by lots more companies that want to learn how to use IoT in industrial systems.
Richard Soleyexecutive director, Industrial Internet Consortium

"One of things starting to come up is the idea of tying in a heads-up display like a Google Glass to IoT data and intelligence inside of machines," said Bill McBeath, chief research officer at ChainLink Research in Newton, Mass. "So, you can look at a machine and it will tell you what is going on. It superimposes some diagnostics that say the machine is overheating and it's probably X part." McBeath said that this so-called augmented reality -- IoT technologies, data and analytics and predictive analytics superimposed on what the worker is seeing in the factory -- provides a more intuitive approach to recognizing problems quickly. However, this same information also could be delivered to the employee via an alert on his smartphone or other handheld device, although it would be a less intuitive approach.

When it comes to wearables, McCutcheon said there are numerous different applications in the manufacturing environment, including on the shop floor. "The ability to use robotics or wearables, in some cases to be able to see things and do things remotely, gives an organization much more agility to be able to make changes, make repairs or fix problems more quickly," he said.

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There also are radio frequency identification (RFID) tags with visual displays that could include, for instance, electronic work instructions for each vehicle or whatever a company is manufacturing, so workers would not have to rely on paper instructions, McBeath said. "Some people say that RFID is not part of the IoT, but we believe it is."

Object Management Group's Soley, who also is executive director of the Industrial Internet Consortium (II Consortium), said that so far, IoT technologies have been underutilized in the industrial sector. Although the Internet has an impact on a number of markets, including entertainment and news delivery, it has had almost no impact on industrial systems. He said there's been a lack of Internet thinking for programmable logic controllers, safety systems, smart electric grids and smart city services. II Consortium is focusing on these areas. The industrial Internet will improve productivity and efficiencies dramatically in the production process and throughout the supply chain, according to Soley.

The II Consortium is working with some of its members to test a system aimed at bringing the industrial Internet to the factory floor, Soley said. According to the II Consortium, the goal of this "Track and Trace" project is "to manage handheld power tools in manufacturing and maintenance environments. This 'management' involves efficiently tracking and tracing the usage of these tools to ensure their proper use, prevent their misuse and collect data on their usage and status."

"It's about tracking everything on the manufacturing floor so you can make the floor more efficient and more safe," Soley said. For instance, the tools monitored in Track and Trace will be able to determine exactly what needs to be done -- and how -- to complete a particular task. If a tool recognizes that it's being misused, it will shut itself off to prevent accident or injury, according to the II Consortium.

In the future envisioned by the II Consortium, processes will govern themselves via intelligent machines and devices that can take corrective action to prevent machines from breaking down; individual parts will be replenished automatically based on real-time data; every handheld digital device in the factory will report the status of every fixed device, giving personnel mobile access to real-time, actionable information; and wearable sensors will track the location of each employee in the factory, in case of emergency.

"The whole point of our consortium is to move these things into the market as rapidly as possible, and I think it's working," Soley said. "There's tremendous interest. We're being approached by lots more companies that want to learn how to use IoT in industrial systems."

More than half of manufacturing companies are beginning to think about the IoT technologies even at the basic level, and they're using some form of that technology, McCutcheon said. "And the majority of those companies -- if they're not using it -- they will be in the next three years."

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