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Using sensors to monitor manufacturing equipment and environments is nothing new. But using those sensors to talk to other equipment and automatically feed data into plant and energy management applications is one of manufacturing's newest frontiers.
Welcome to the Internet of Things (IoT), where devices and equipment leverage Internet connectivity to create a more proactive paradigm in which problems are identified much quicker, and in much more detail, and are often even fixed without human intervention. IoT's supply chain impacts can't be ignored, experts say.
With manufacturers looking to make themselves more sustainable in order to achieve new levels of efficiency and improve their use of resources, the IoT promises to help on both fronts by enabling companies to get more insight into their manufacturing operations than they'd ever imagined.
"It used to be the leading-edge companies working with leading-edge consultants who could do that kind of analysis," said George Favaloro, managing director in PricewaterhouseCoopers' sustainable business solutions practice. "Now it's getting more and more mainstream, and more companies are understanding the benefits of doing this."
IoT's real-time data flow
Favaloro believes that tapping machine-to-machine interfaces for real-time resource usage data may be the most logical place for manufacturing operations to start reaping the sustainability benefits of the IoT.
"If your equipment is starting to wear and is drawing more energy, you want to know that, and you don't want to know it in three or four months, you want to know it right away," Favaloro said. "That's where the rubber meets the road in helping with your sustainability effort."
There are myriad ways this kind of insight could benefit a manufacturing operation. Imagine a plant that, even as its equipment is running, automatically turns off lights and adjusts climate settings when it detects that no people are present, and then turns the lights back on and resets the climate when someone reenters. Or one that, when it detects a small drop in water pressure consistent with a leak, shuts down a process and alerts the maintenance staff.
Taking it a step further, the IoT could enable a piece of shop equipment to detect a potentially dangerous malfunction, shut down other equipment that might heighten the risk of incident, and direct maintenance staff to the precise location of the issue. In some cases, it might initiate a fix such as uploading new firmware that solves the problem.
There are indirect potential sustainability benefits, too. For instance, IoT capabilities can take a lot of the guesswork out of equipment repairs, bringing an end to maintenance crews having to spend their days constantly retrieving new tools and parts they didn't know they needed.
"If I knew what was wrong with a product, I could have one service call, and bring exactly the right part," said Kimberly Knickle, a practice director at IDC Manufacturing Insights.
Caterpillar brings IoT onboard
That's precisely the kind of capability Caterpillar Inc. attempts to give customers with its Product Link fleet-management technology. Product Link, which uses cellular and satellite technology to monitor the condition of a customer's fleet of Caterpillar vehicles, provides real-time updates on the operating condition of all of its heavy vehicles. That might enable a company to, say, more quickly effect repairs of issues that are impacting fuel economy or resulting in oil and fluid leaks.
Another potential benefit of the IoT lies in linking equipment sensors to incident response systems, enabling companies to avoid releasing excess pollutants into the air or disposing of too much wastewater, said Dave Meyer, a senior consultant at Environmental and Occupational Risk Management Inc., a Silicon Valley-based firm that advises companies on their environmental, health, safety and sustainability efforts.
"The Internet of Things offers possibilities for businesses to manage resources better from an operational efficiency perspective, as well as from a regulatory and permit compliance perspective," said Meyer.
In other words, it's a matter of good business. Companies increasingly see sustainability as a viable business strategy, and the IoT is becoming a more important component of that strategy as it proves its ability to contribute to sustainability efforts.
"The challenge will be to design technologies that last longer, use less energy and that can be de-manufactured, reprocessed and reused," said Meyer. "Sustainable manufacturing is about improving the bottom line through more efficient and responsible use of resources, while producing less waste."
Given its potential to help achieve both of those objectives, it would appear that the IoT is destined to be a mainstay on the manufacturing scene for the foreseeable future.
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