Agile, Modern Manufacturers Depend On The Network

Although IoT holds a lot of promise for manufacturers, the only way to assure this technology reaches its full potential is through intelligent and autonomous, application-aware networking.

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Pascal TangapregassamPascal Tangapregassam

Most of the conversations regarding the Internet of Things (IoT) tend to focus on consumer applications, and how a world of wirelessly interconnected devices that are constantly in conversation with each other can improve our lives in both novel and meaningful ways. While these tools run the gamut from gaming to healthcare, the underlying premise of IoT — technology that has the ability to constantly learn about its users, adapt to their needs and ultimately connect them to each other — is a concept that has resonance far beyond just the consumer realm.   

Manufacturers in particular have a great deal to gain from embracing connectivity to help streamline their operations and instill processes that can improve their bottom line. In any industry vertical, transparency at all levels of an organization is beneficial in helping identify areas for improvement. IoT devices that collect and exchange data from the production line all the way up to the headquarters can help decision makers glean actionable insights that not only make operations more efficient and cost effective, but even improve the safety and happiness of employees across the board.

But IoT proliferation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and introducing a bevy of different technologies that demand wireless connectivity and real-time performance efficiencies can be a burden to the wide-area network (WAN) supplying it. To successfully manage and utilize these new devices, manufacturers need complete visibility and control into their networks to ensure business-critical activities don’t lag due to poor connectivity or lack of consistent Quality of Service.

Connectivity Helps Bridge Communication Gaps From the Top Down

In the manufacturing sector especially, bandwidth-heavy IoT applications are particularly prevalent. Take, for instance, audio and video tools that are common not only on assembly lines but in homes and offices the world over. These surveillance tools act as the eyes and ears of an array of stakeholders who, for various reasons, are based in disparate locations despite working toward the same common goal.

For instance, a floor manager may be better able to monitor production remotely rather than in the factory or on the assembly line thanks to a series of cameras that capture critical vantage points that an individual couldn’t attain on-site. The cameras can stream these perspectives to screens located off-site in real time, giving those in charge of production greater insight into activity along the assembly line than they would if they were on the floor.

These same vantages can be utilized by manufacturing professionals to help monitor for any potential risks or technical breakdown that could harm both assets and assembly line performance. But these aren’t the only tools manufacturers can use to help keep their robotic machines operational and efficient, as many of the sensors and beacons that characterize consumer IoT can be retooled for an industrial context.

Robot Operations and Efficiency are Better Assured When Activities are Controlled

Take some of the home appliances that were among the first IoT use cases in the consumer realm. The iRobot vacuum, for instance, can give users feedback on their smartphone on its performance and when it needs the bin to be emptied or the brush bar to be cleaned in order to maintain maximum cleaning efficiency.

Similar robots or drones on the assembly line can provide the equivalent feedback to supply chain applications so that floor managers and other relevant parties can ensure that workflows run smoothly and the productivity of the line is as high as possible. Should a drone’s sensor indicate its battery is running low or some of its actuators are unexpectedly becoming defective, for instance, the sensor can communicate with nearby beacons to send an alert to a standby drone to take over and warn the floor manager it would dock to recharge or even needs maintenance.

Although the over-the-air communication between these sensors and beacons doesn’t take place on a physical channel, that doesn’t mean it won’t weigh heavily on the manufacturer’s corporate WAN. These same airwaves get all the more crowded when you take into account the myriad of other applications inside the factory running on the wired LAN and sharing the same WAN.

Constant Communication is Key to Productivity

Design teams, for instance, need to collaborate with materials providers and vendors, which in today’s business world happens most efficiently over unified communications (UC) tools like Skype for Business. If teams can’t communicate in real-time on collaboration and chat apps because of poor network performance or a lack of business-grade quality bandwidth, unnecessary production delays are an inevitability.

In an increasingly digital manufacturing landscape, the tools network managers use to keep the array of connected devices now populating both the factory and the branch office must be software-defined. IoT tools and devices can’t deliver control and prioritize traffic into all areas of the businesses without network operators being able to have all-encompassing insight into these applications’ performance on the WAN.

Application-aware, software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) management tools give WAN managers the ability to view the entire network from a single vantage, helping them to keep in perspective what applications are weighing the heaviest on network bandwidth based on their importance to the business. This ultimately allows network operators to prioritize bandwidth to the applications that are most critical to business performance.  If, for instance, a security guard is using valuable network bandwidth to stream Netflix in their downtime, SD-WAN management tools can direct network capacity away from trivial apps and toward those affecting the corporate mission in real time without a network operator’s intervention.

Although IoT holds a lot of promise for manufacturers, the only way to assure this technology reaches its full potential is through intelligent and autonomous, application-aware networking. With a wave of new applications set to flood the manufacturing landscape in the years to come, applying SD-WAN management today will put businesses in an optimal position to reap the rewards of IoT tomorrow.

Pascal Tangapregassam is a Product Marketing Manager at InfoVista.

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