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The Crossroads of Connectivity

The next 18 months need to generate solutions that are easier to integrate and more cost-effective in order for Industrial IoT to be truly embraced throughout U.S. manufacturing.

Two years ago the activity around the Industrial Internet of Things qualified it in every way as a buzz term. The volume of noise, the ability to cut through the minutia in garnering attention, and the projections of what it would represent all transformed a collection of mature strategies into the focal point of manufacturing technology dialogue.

Wireless connectivity, machine-to-machine communication, mobile device integration and remote monitoring capabilities are connected plant floor and enterprise-wide applications that have been in use for some time. However, the dynamic of integrating and connecting all of these technologies via a shared interface powered and supported by burgeoning software platforms carried the potential to transform manufacturing on numerous levels.

Similarly, the ability to collect and analyze the data that would be individually and collectively generated by all facets of the enterprise offered potential efficiencies and costs savings that could alter manufacturing’s competitive landscape. Legacy challenges like size and geography would be a thing of the past.

Furthermore, IoT strategies seemed to feed off the increased regulatory actions that propelled the use of software for aggregating production data and supporting traceability efforts. All of this business intelligence could be analyzed and compared in simultaneously assessing compliance and efficiency.

And because this data stream begins at the initial sourcing of components and raw materials, flowing through production, distribution and logistics until the finished product reaches its endpoint, purchasing and supply chain management could also be evaluated for improvement.

The potential seemed endless in terms of application and impact. Today, every one of those data points still rings loud and clear and true.

However, even with all of these factors pointing to the overwhelming usefulness of IoT technology in the manufacturing enterprise, why does research unanimously point to less than 20 percent of all machinery being connected to the enterprise network? Why has Industrial IoT become more interesting than relevant? Why has enhanced connectivity come to represent a chasm separating the players from the spectators?

According to research conducted by earlier this year, more than 85 percent of manufacturers have not invested in higher levels of IoT. What is driving this nonchalant attitude towards IoT investment when it was initially recognized with such fervor? The answers, in my opinion, are both simple and concerning.

First, connecting all these moving pieces is not only intimidating, but potentially overwhelming. The toughest aspect, gleaned from my conversations with manufacturers, is simply figuring out where to start. I recently had a chance to discuss this dynamic with GE’s Katie Moore. My apologies for paraphrasing, but essentially she advises both peers within GE as well as potential customers on the importance of focusing on easy wins. This translates to targeting operational areas that will not only benefit from greater interconnectivity, but can quickly produce results that will help validate the resources that were allocated.

However, for this to be realized, another dynamic needs to be embedded into the IoT strategy that is simple in premise but challenging in reality — IT and operations absolutely have to work together.

Now, you just read that they have to work together. You’ve probably heard this before. But it’s not that simple.

Members of these two teams have to be embedded deeply enough within each other’s workflows that they understand how to connect everything in a manner that makes sense for the entire enterprise. Not just production. Not just procurement. Not just supply chain. Operations and IT need to be at the same vendor meetings at the same time. They need to work together in assessing solutions, mapping out the implementation and championing the cause internally.

Once these two teams are on the same page and working together in a non-competitive manner, then the first target can be assessed. But the next step represents the beginning of conversations on even more complicated issues:

  • Cost vs. ROI
  • Security vs. Efficiency
  • Internal expertise vs. External integrators
  • Current vs. New vendors.

Even with the two primary players within an organization teamed up, there are still a number of complicated issues to resolve. This is where suppliers and technology providers need to step up their approach.

In my opinion, it is no longer enough for IoT leaders to simply introduce their latest technology and promote the affiliated benefits. They need to provide solutions that not only address the problems that IoT will rectify, but proactively cover the challenges that IoT implementation will create. The process has to be simple, secure and easy to validate from a cost perspective.

Although I agree with those who evangelize on the numerous competitive advantages that greater connectivity carries, from my perspective U.S. manufacturers are not investing with the same zeal. At the end of the day, regardless of the growth potential IoT represents for U.S. manufacturing, unless the stakeholders comprising the bulk of the industrial marketplace begin to buy in more strongly, this movement is dead in its tracks.

Buzz is something a media company like mine lives for, but with an appreciation for the fact that the clamoring of today can quickly become a distant echo tomorrow. IoT deserves more than buzz term status. It is a game-changer, but only if all the players are really interested in winning. 

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