How Automation and the IIoT are Improving Industrial Communication

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In its earliest days, industrial automation made waves in manufacturing simply by increasing productivity and reducing high human operator costs. While those advantages are still a major draw for many businesses, the focus has broadened in recent years. Decision makers are now seeking solutions to make their processes safer, flexible and more accurate.

The Internet of Things (IoT), a global network of “smart” devices, has expanded exponentially as more companies begin to offer deeply integrated products that not only speak directly to end users, but link with other networked products. Understandably, the manufacturing industry has become one of the largest players in this arena.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) continues to be a growing topic of conversation as industry leaders surface opportunities for partners to digitize their businesses. Many of the obstacles that initially presented for businesses interested in streamlining their automated processes — such as prohibitive equipment entry costs or a lack of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication capabilities — have been mitigated by better, more affordable technology and increased competition among suppliers. We’re now facing a climate where the enormous benefits can’t be ignored, and manufacturers must respond to remain in the game.

Reshaping Data Exchange

Gathering data from mechanized equipment is not a new concept. For decades, status reports and system diagnostics have incrementally improved. This plethora of data has informed industrial processes over time and allowed Lean manufacturing to flourish by streamlining processes and architecture, and by leveraging automation.

Historically, on-site technicians would review system data on a machine’s display screen. Depending on the circumstances, they would then make manual adjustments to fix or improve the process. It was slow, expensive and ultimately inefficient. As a result, a strong demand for transparency and speed in data exchange surfaced, particularly within the last few years.

The IIoT has risen as the logical progression in industrial communications infrastructure. Today, data is gathered at multiple points, analyzed, communicated digitally to remote technicians (or in some cases other machines) and acted on in an instant. Consequently, manufacturers are beginning to rethink their broader operations, and are ultimately finding greater value in many of their processes through automation and the IIoT.

Is There Measurable Impact?

With the IIoT acting as the eyes and ears, machine learning and M2M connectivity together have spurred incremental improvements in manufacturing processes across several industries. This vast impact on communications infrastructure has led companies to explore and invest in business intelligence determining how the IIoT might move the needle in other areas of such as quality control, safety, sustainability and supply chain optimization.

Some examples of how enhanced communication through the IIoT and automation can impact these areas include:

  • Quality Control
       - Fast, remote access to diagnostics and maintenance.
       - Greater accuracy and control over manufacturing parameters.   
  • Safety
      - Networked information exchange can eliminate the need for on-site personnel in hazardous locations.
      - Remote sensors can trigger a variety of alarms signaling unsecured entry points and dangerous changes in the environment due to malfunctioning equipment or emergency conditions.
  • Sustainability
      - Utilizing motion-activated task and safety lighting, maintaining climate controlled facilities and monitoring water usage to detect leaks can all greatly reduce energy consumption in manufacturing.
  • Supply Chain
      - Assessment of product inventory across a wide-network of distribution facilities can be managed from one central location or on-the-go.
      - Internet-connected tracking devices using use long-range networks or Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWANs) to provide the real-time geographic location, environment and condition of products.  

Implementing IIoT Automation for Your Business

While the value in incorporating communication automation is clear, the thought of shifting decades old manufacturing processes can be daunting for business leaders. Even small upgrades to infrastructure, process revisions and workforce trainings can often have a significant impact on day-to-day operations. The important thing to keep in mind as you form a plan is that long-term, incremental change is a smart approach in an industry driven by technology that inevitably makes itself obsolete.

Identify where you want your business to be long term, but don’t crash and burn with hasty or expensive changes that you might not be ready for. Scalable, cloud-based investments can add the most value to your business often have a small proof of concept. These include advanced process control (APC) monitoring, condition-based monitoring (CBM), enterprise data management, mobility solutions and planning/scheduling tools.

In addition, maintaining a focus on security should be a top priority as you grow your business to harness the power of the IIoT. Just as you wouldn’t leave the doors to your factory’s physical spaces wide open, you should also formalize a plan to keep your new broader network secure. 

Where IIoT Will Take Us Tomorrow

Today, the concept of a connected factory, operating within a controlled and somewhat closed environment seems fairly benign. Its common practice for new construction and often carries more significance than aesthetic in the planning phases of industrial facilities design. Moving towards an open, interconnected environment will almost certainly become the norm in coming years, and many experts have predicted that advancements in networked manufacturing technology will outpace current consumer-driven leaders within the next few decades. Accenture estimates the IIoT could add $14.2 trillion to the global economy by the year 2030.  

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