Sensor-Driven Technology and Its Impact on Manufacturing

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While sensors have long played an important role in industrial settings, the intersection of market forces in manufacturing with the Internet of Things (IoT) has recently propelled sensor technology to new heights. Coupled with greater network connectivity and improved machine learning, sensors are now more vital than ever as manufacturers search for ways to optimize value throughout all levels of operation.

Today, an open marketplace fueled by the advent of wearable networked devices, driverless cars, and smart buildings, is leading the charge for these emerging technologies — but the tides seem to be gradually shifting. Many experts feel the current consumer-driven model will soon become obsolete as B2B leaders, particularly those in industrial manufacturing, seek opportunities for deeper integration and innovation through new technology.

From Evolution to Revolution

Though rudimentary at the start, mechanical robotics have been used to improve manufacturing processes dating back as early as the 1930’s. Void of advanced sensors, these early machines were essentially “bodies” working without any eyes or ears as human operators monitored from a safe distance. While they brought significant and beneficial change to manufacturing, progress was slow over the next 40 years or so, until the landscape dramatically shifted in the 1970’s.

As electronic sensors became more economic, they started to be integrated into existing industrial processes to help those bodies map out their surroundings. At the time, automotive, metals, and food manufacturers were the largest adopters of sensor technology. Their newly-enabled machines were large and powerful, but were ultimately dangerous creating a hazardous environment. Early sensors mainly focused on tasks like contact and object presence detection or wall and boundary tracking, both which helped the machines perform jobs that were becoming too repetitive or strenuous for technicians.

Over the last 50 years, the decades-old face of industrial manufacturing has become safer, cleaner, cheaper and more efficient as sensor technology has improved. While the automotive industry still remains the largest adopter, industries like plastics, rubber, electronics, pharmaceuticals and biomedicine have also incorporated sensors into their manufacturing operations. Modern sensors use sonar, cameras or other optic systems, and audio monitoring technology to maintain safe, collaborative environments alongside plant technicians. In lab and “cleanroom” spaces, microscopic nanosensors can even be used to track slight changes in temperature, or electrical conductivity to monitor things like air quality.

As sensors have improved, allowing more and better information to be processed, other areas of manufacturing technology have also surfaced new ways to use that data. Industrial automation has flourished through the use of advanced IFTTT (If-This-Than-That) platforms and machine learning, but the most recent innovation to positively impact manufacturing is network connectivity harnessing the IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things). 

How Sensors Are Shaping the Big Data Landscape

Initially, manufacturers relied on sensors that provided simple data points to regulate actions and to analyze productivity and machine diagnostics. They faced obstacles with capacity and accessibility, with limited transparency or opportunity for long-term analysis. As sensors have developed more “human-like” senses, the available data has also evolved.

For example, manufacturers now have access to real-time audio and video being simultaneously gathered by hundreds, or even thousands of sensors throughout their facilities. In addition, cloud storage, M2M (machine-to-machine) communication and broad network connectivity through the IIoT have illuminated dark data. Large volumes of complex information can be processed with greater speed and detail, and used to optimize processes across every industry.

Since this information is no longer siloed, there is bottom-up transparency on most every piece of the puzzle allowing analysts to study and quantify each step’s financial impact. Demand forecast, production timeline, quality, yield, and supplier performance are just some of the many areas that can be refined through this greater granularity of data, and manufacturers are seizing the opportunity to improve their operations.

Another way the IIoT can use data to optimize manufacturing is through a secure facilities network. In this environment, any number of automated devices within a plant can be linked together in a hardwired, or even wireless network.  This network can then funnel data gathered from each access points through one centralized software application – a Human Machine Interface (HMI). The HMI acts as the brain of the facility, providing operators with a dashboard to troubleshoot in real-time from wherever they are limited only by their ability to connect to the network.

When you consider these advances, and the overall increasing global focus on technology expansion, you can see we’re not far from fully-connected, fully-automated facilities.

Maintaining Integrity and Security

When expected to meet market demands, manufacturers can’t simply disregard sensors and IIoT connectivity as passing trends. The benefits, namely the ROI, are too great to ignore. However, as machine connectivity continues to evolve, it’s important to identify possible threats.

These steps can help you take action and safeguard your facility:

  • To start, work on bringing existing IT and OT systems administrators together to form a launch plan. While it might be a challenge as each will have different priorities and approaches to security, it will ultimately result in a more thoughtful and successful implementation.
  • Next, identify which legacy systems will require new or added layers of security as they’re brought onto to the broader facility network. While some new devices might be supplied with a certain level of security by default, it’s important to mitigate any back-door risks if existing systems are not similarly protected. Also note that in order to optimize connectivity, many IIoT devices use minimal security controls and could benefit from supplementary measures.
  • From there, consider each new device or system separately to best identify and classify their impact on overall network security.
  • Last, focus on data integrity by standardizing access to the broader network with robust, routinely serviced credentials. The IT and OT teams can help create and distribute a set of industry-specific best practices employees can reference as the newly connected network and facility evolve over time.

Optimizing for the Future

Thanks to continuous innovations in sensor technology and machine connectivity, manufacturers across a variety of industries are well-poised to maximize their efficiency and minimize their costs. While your first steps should focus on finding ways to enable and collect your data through greater connectivity, the ultimate goal should be to harness that new visibility to positively impact your bottom line.

Sensor-driven IoT technology is just one small part of a larger digital transformation, combining technological advances with their accelerated impact not only in business, but in society as a whole. Decision makers should take a strategic approach, thinking of their digital transformation as a journey with several connected goals and multiple opportunities to optimize along the way. With a thoughtful and deliberate digital transformation plan, there’s unlimited potential to learn and earn.

The opinions expressed in this piece are solely Cisco's. They do not necessarily represent WESCO’s views.

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