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September 13, 2017

IoT and the Manufacturing Industry

The idea of interconnecting each and every device, with the help of the Cloud and Internet of Things (IoT), for greater ‘device interactive automation’ is a recent yet huge trend within the industrial networking sector.  But the million-dollar question is if this idea is as feasible for the manufacturing industry, as it is for the consumer sector.

IoT, at its very basic definition, is an idea in which every imaginable device is connected to a shared network, where data from all such devices can be stored, shared, analyzed, and acted upon. It allows such devices to be automated and work in tandem with each other, by communication with each other through their shared network, or through the Cloud. Internet of Things, more commonly known as IoT has gained a lot of momentum within the consumer-facing industries. This  infographic from Cisco illustrates the scope and scale of IoT within the consumer-facing sectors and industry verticals.

In this article, we intend to shed a bit of light on the impact of IoT on the manufacturing industry, with the help of several industry expert insights. With that being said, many industry specialists would agree with the fact that IoT and the unprecedented level of automation that it brings to the table can be immensely beneficial for businesses, especially manufacturing industries. Such businesses are also gradually becoming aware of the tremendous automation benefits of IoT and other Cloud-based solutions and so a substantial amount of groundwork to support IoT-based manufacturing processes is already being developed and deployed.

Interconnected Production Processes

According to Tony Paine, president of Kepware, a company that specializes in developing communication and interoperability software for the automation industry: “There’s been an ‘Internet of things’ in manufacturing for years now.” He further explains his statement by pointing out the fact that more and more manufacturing businesses are implementing more preventative and condition-based monitoring protocols, and going forward this trend is only going to increase.

“Connecting a range of devices and systems together by putting sensors out in the field and retrofitting older equipment to pull in info and make decisions,” Paine said. “For example, if you have a system that’s supposed to run in a range from x to y, you can put in a temperature sensor to see if it goes out of range before it runs out of spec. Measuring vibrations to detect out of spec operations is another example.”

To achieve higher levels of automation, manufacturing businesses are looking forward to connecting such devices to manufacturing execution systems (MES) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems for multi-level and multi-location connectivity and higher level decision-making protocols.

Mike Hannah, product development manager for Rockwell Automation, says: “We used to talk about islands of automation. That’s now evolving into a discussion about how does one plant talk to another plant—not just one part of a plant talking to another part. The growth of devices on Ethernet in the manufacturing sector is accelerating rapidly. Part of the reason for this is the desire to have data available across the enterprise.”

Many still believe that the cutting-edge technology of IoT and the industry practices of condition-based monitoring along with sensor-based ERP connectivity to be technologically terminal. However, this conception is far from the actual truth, especially in the case of manufacturing industries.

Russ Fadel, CEO of Thingworx, a company with expertise in merging functionalities in terms of real-time data, mashups, search, social media and the semantic Web and implementing had this to say about the matter, “This is not just about connecting smart devices, this is about modeling all the things in your manufacturing world so that it’s easy to remix them in new ways to build new applications.”

He further exemplified his statement by stating the possibilities of implementing Google weather forecasts to influence a facility’s energy management system, to either cool down the facility or warm it up accordingly, well before shift timings for better employee productivity.

According to Fadel, “This kind of automated, connected response could save you, say, three percent on your utility bill. The ability to remix people and systems to interact with radical equality—this will be the source of some unexpected innovation. For manufacturers, the Internet of Things is not just about connecting your car to your alarm clock, it’s about creating a competitive advantage.”

Influence on Automation Technology

With so much hype surrounding IoT and its applicable business benefits, one might perceive it as another vendor marketing attempt to get more and more end users to procure and install more products, to achieve the next level of business acceleration and agility. But in actuality, it is the end users who are actually driving vendors to adopt the IoT way of doing things.

Traditionally, vendors used to design their products keeping in mind the necessities of the end user, only to later discover that the end users wanted to do things differently with the said products than what the vendor actually intended them for. This led to such technological products being repeatedly updated and even revised in some cases to stay relevant and useful to the end users. But with technological products that are being developed with the IoT mentality, Fadel said they will be “built for unplanned alterations or connections later on.” There are other technological factors that are fueling the fire for this kind of change, with Ethernet and wireless networks being the most prominent.

Scott Killian, director of connectivity at Sixnet, a company that deals in industrial network connectivity devices, give an example of this trend, citing Endress + Hauser’s new flowmeters which have an Ethernet port on the device itself. “It’s easier to do with this with an AC-powered instrument, of course, but I believe we will see more instruments be 802.11 or Ethernet-enabled,” Killian said. “Then the need for large control systems might not be so prevalent. Because if everything is connected via Ethernet, the data from them can be passed digitally to a computer system that can make decisions at a very high speed.”

This goes to say that Ethernet is still the primary network connectivity utility within the manufacturing industry but, according to Killian, cellular/wireless and Cloud-based networks are slowly gaining popularity in industrial utility applications.

He also stated that, “Cellular wasn’t that popular a year and a half ago, but that’s changed a lot with utilities and water/wastewater, in particular. Cellular technology is enabling users to monitor things that weren’t easily monitored in the past. On the wired side of things, I’ve heard of water districts wanting to run cable networks because Comcast can drop in broadband. So now they want hardened routers so they can run wired or wireless—and this is from guys who just recently were using dial-up 9600-baud modems. But with the access they now have to 3G, they’re getting onboard with what they can do with it. New technologies tend to force the use of better networking technologies.”

Randy Durick, director of Turck, global suppliers of connected sensors, pointed out a recent trend ran amok within the manufacturing industries. The trend in question here is the use of diagnostic power conditioner as both a communication and a diagnostic interface between power supply modules and foundation fieldbus segments. He also stated “The diagnostic module collects and transmits information to the higher level fieldbus as diagnostic and alarm data. Using this device makes process data visible on the network portal via the Web so that an engineer at a remote location will be able to access the data and make adjustments instantly.”

Apart from this he also mentions the industry trend where vendors are implementing Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology within their existing automation products. According to him, “This allows users to obtain manufacturing data more efficiently and economically, because the sensor can log process information to an integrated RFID tag which can then wirelessly transmit stored information to higher level system when activated by a PLC [programmable logic controller]. In this manner, a user can obtain current and historical information about any device in the system at any time.”

Jeff Curtis, the senior applications engineer at Banner Engineering, another global supplier of sensors and other industrial process automation products, noted that, “If I go and cut your Ethernet cable, you don’t know there’s a problem until you try to go online. But if I knock out one of your wireless nodes, you’ll get an error message on your computer.”

According to Jeff, the kind of automation driven product development carried out at Banner Engineering creates a scenario where “all the devices are linked together on their own network family so that each family can exist in the world without the need to co-locate or cross-talk with another system.” He further added that, “The beauty of this is that you can have these networks everywhere collecting data, acquiring it—and have the determinism to make a decision using wireless data without ever being told to do so. So, if there is signal loss or power gets cut, the wireless product enables easy tracking of the problem.”

He went further to state that, “What was accepted technology five years ago is quickly fading away in the utility sector. Gone are the days of the two-wire cell modem and wired networks. Everything seems to be going to wireless, health-checkable networks.”

Within the manufacturing industry, the influence of IoT based systems to improve productivity and business agility is tremendous. Some industry experts go as far as to quote this disruptive trend to be the fourth Industrial revolution. Such automation technologies already exist and will continue to flourish, creating processes that administer and manage themselves autonomously and even take corrective measures to streamline the diagnostic elements within the manufacturing industry.


Akash Deb, is a freelance content editor/writer who dabbles in all things technological. He also freelances for The Real PBX, writing on numerous topics from telecommunications to unified communication platforms. In the long run, he dreams of making it big one day, with his own advertising start-up. But until then, he is happy to do what he's good at and that’s writing about tech.