The ‘Internet of Things’ is here. Get busy or get left behind.

By Curtis Williams | Mar 14, 2016

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One would think that a technological advancement that's destined to revolutionize the world would be called something more alluring than the "Internet of Things." But the name stuck, and the integration of smart devices, smart homes, and smart companies is escalating at a steady pace. Their presence can be seen inside factories and in our everyday lives.

Probably the most visible example is fitness trackers, which were a popular gift last Christmas. But wearables do a lot more than just tracking your exercise habits. If you have a heart condition, a tracker can continuously monitor your EKG, and a dangerous reading will send an alert directly to an emergency service. On the industrial side, waste disposal companies are installing sensors into trash bins that gauge their fullness level. Trucks will only have to service the bins that are ready for emptying, rather than every single one on a route. That reduces labor and fuel costs as well as traffic congestion and air pollution.

IoT is the integration of sensors, controllers, and software into objects of any sort in order to monitor most anything under the sun, and transmit data to a collection point via the internet. That data is used to make decisions like switching a light bulb off, or collected to analyze trends or yields. Over 6 billion objects worldwide are currently connected, and by 2020 the estimates range from 26 to 80 billion objects. Analysts predict that the global market for IoT integration over the next 10 years will be measured well into the trillions of dollars.

Germany is a leader in IoT, with their government and private sector investing heavily and working in partnership. Their showpiece is a Siemens plant in Amberg that manufactures prorrammable logic controllers (PLCs). The factory has long been on the leading edge of automation, but now enhanced with IoT technologies, 75 percent of the plant is digitized and automated, from pulling (and even ordering) raw materials to shipping finished goods, and every step in between. Furthermore, the Amberg site is connected with hundreds of other facilities throughout the region in order to coordinate suppliers and subcontractors involved in its operations.

But you don't have to be a giant multinational company to benefit from IoT technology. Even simple applications can help you operate more efficiently. Many objects are candidates for monitoring and reporting via IoT, falling mainly into the three categories: facilities, capital equipment, and production.

Throughout your facility, energy and labor savings can be realized with plug-ins that control lighting, temperature and most other environmental parameters via the internet. A warehouse across town can be controlled remotely. Some factories use IoT for pest control, where a sensor in each rodent trap reports whether it's empty or not. It's no longer necessary to waste time checking empty rodent traps throughout your property. Tasks which utilize labor but don't add a lot of value could make good candidates for sensoring, along the lines of rodent traps and trash bins.

Nowadays most manufacturing equipment comes loaded with sensors, so as you upgrade, IoT integration will be inevitable. Machines that monitor themselves make it unnecessary to shut down production to do preventive maintenance on a machine that doesn't need it, and machines will shut themselves off before they crash. Each cavity on a mold will measure critical parameters so you can analyze data pertaining to yields and quality.

Depending on the product, each unit on a production line becomes its own data set, essentially resulting in a 100 percent inspection. If there's a problem, you'll know it real time and the machine might shut itself down, or even better, self-correct to get the product back into control limits. Remotely, you'll easily be able to monitor your suppliers' processes if they welcome it, and your customers will be able to monitor you.

By some estimates, IoT can increase efficiency by up to 20 percent, but it will come incrementally depending upon where it is being applied and if automation can also be integrated. I don't believe the growing pains of adapting to the Internet of Things will be terribly disruptive to a manufacturing facility. Ethernet connectivity has been a good intro for IoT, and as you steadily modernize your equipment and apply the technology to your facility and processes, you'll find effective ways to save on energy, increase productivity, and improve quality all at the same time.

By whatever name, it's a good thing. Get busy or get left behind.

Curtis Williams has been in manufacturing management and operations for over 25 years. Contact him at cwmscolo@comcast.net.