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Teresa Tomas

In 2016, nearly a quarter of investments in IoT devices was made by members of the manufacturing industry. Manufacturing was the top sector in IoT spending that year, and according to market intelligence company International Data Corporation (IDC), the industry is forecasted to continue as the top buyer of IoT devices through year 2020.

According to Statista, a major online market research portal, the number of IoT connected devices worldwide will be just over 30 billion in 2020, doubling in just five years. Statista estimates the number of machine-to-machine (M2M) devices, which are key to smart manufacturing processes, to also more than double from 1.5 billion now to 3.3 billion in 2021.

However, the manufacturing industry is not simply leading investment in IoT -- it is revolutionizing it through research and development. Here are some of the benefits of recent innovations in smart manufacturing.

Smart Manufacturing Overview

Smart manufacturing is enabled by IoT connected devices, big data, data analytics, robotics, machine learning, sensor technologies, and artificial intelligence. Each of these technologies are used together to optimize manufacturing processes, assist manufacturers, and keep workers safe.

Here are some more potential effects of smart manufacturing:

  • Greater operating efficiency. The ability to understand what is happening at each stage of the manufacturing process allows plant managers to implement real-time solutions and minimize machine downtime. This leads to greater efficiency and reduced costs. 
  • Minimal machine downtime. Artificial intelligence algorithms can use operation and failure logs to turn real-time IoT sensor data into predictive maintenance insights. This allows human workers to be warned of potential component failures, or even enable these components to be “self-healing”.
  • Increased worker safety. Automated tracking and analysis of people’s movements and activities inside a smart factory can help mitigate risks. Safety systems warn persons inside the factory about specific injury risks, surveying for lapses in focus or mistakes during new or routine tasks. These systems could also administer or send for medical assistance if needed.
  • Optimized inventorying. Real-time sensor data can be used to track the location of parts and products before, during, and after manufacturing. Analytics provide the necessary information for ordering and can decrease costs on orders with consistent scheduling.
  • Supply chain management. Manufacturers can use IoT device geolocation to track shipments, parts, and products. This data can then be used to adjust scheduling on parts orders and provide insights that make products easily recycled or reused, lowering the cost of materials for manufacturers.

Smart Factories

Smart factories are manufacturing plants that incorporate many of the previously mentioned smart manufacturing technologies with specialized processes and management. Smart factories are built to be responsive to environmental changes and can proactively address potential problems or events.

Examples of this “smart” behavior include responding to changes in weather by adjusting processes that are sensitive to environmental factors. Predictive maintenance is another example: machines can periodically do repairs or replacements on components that need fixing based on their predicted failure rates.

To do these things, smart factories integrate IoT sensors and data processing throughout the facility and all parts of production to create an automated, holistic view of what’s happening at all times in all corners of the plant.

But where will the first smart factory be? Germany, one of the world’s leading economies for manufacturing, wants to take the lead.

Industry 4.0

The term Industry 4.0 originates from the name of the German government’s strategy for computerizing manufacturing, Industry 4.0. The plan focuses on the end goal of building the world’s first smart factory.

The name, Industry 4.0, dates back to a report presented at the 2011 Hanover Fair, one of the world's largest trade fairs, which is hosted annually in Germany. The “4.0” refers to a fourth industrial revolution, the first three being initiated first by mechanization, then assembly lines and electric energy, and finally digital computing.

Proponents of Industry 4.0 believe cyber-physical systems that integrate IoT devices, cloud computing, and other technologies will bring a wave of innovation and efficiency of historical significance, citing many of the potential benefits covered here.

With any innovative technology, there are additional risks. Critics of Industry 4.0 warn of several downsides:

  • Cybersecurity challenges. Greater internet connectedness at a smart factory creates more opportunities are for malicious tampering of digital supply networks (DSN). Factory makers must have a keen understanding of and regard for cybersecurity needs to properly design smart factories.
  • Lack of standardization. Currently, common smart manufacturing strategies, terminologies, and standards are lacking among engineers, IT professionals, and manufacturers. Initiation of a fourth industrial revolution would need to be deeply collaborative considering the global presence and operations of not just the manufacturing industry but individual manufacturing companies.
  • Lost manufacturing jobs. The creation of smart factories would bring an end to the economic viability of many existing manufacturing occupations and skills. This stands to create significant sociopolitical turmoil and will impact governments, corporations, educational institutions, families, and many others.

Changes to manufacturing are imminent

With the prospect of major changes to manufacturing on the horizon, economies and societies around the world stand to face major changes. Not only will jobs be created but lost as well. Security risks will change drastically for the manufacturing industry as a whole.

However, IoT devices and other technologies offer major benefits to consumers and corporations, creating huge growth opportunities for businesses and factories around the world, opportunities so large, they may even mark an historical turning point for industry.

Teresa Tomas is from DO Supply, Inc., an industrial equipment supplier based in Cary, NC. She writes about robotics, machine learning, and the future of automation for industries.

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