The Internet of Things (IoT) was almost unheard of a few years ago but is now, along with artificial intelligence (AI), at the heart of a revolution in manufacturing and the wider business environment.
What is happening and what are the benefits for manufacturing?
New revolution in engineering and manufacturing
Over the past three decades increasing computerisation has changed the way products are manufactured. Computer-aided design allowed modelling, prototyping and testing to be speeded up and computer-aided manufacturing meant that tools on the production line could be more flexible. Then the two were networked together so that designs could be sent straight to the computer-aided machines on a production line.
Although the investment in computers and tooling was colossal, direct links between intelligent engineering and manufacturing machines meant that production lines were able to adapt more easily, to produce new and better products, making production cheaper and faster.
What makes the IoT different?
The IoT refers to each device being able to connect to the internet and communicate with other devices. For example, a modern car has somewhere between 60 and 100 separate processors, although many of them do very simple things like operate the lights depending on what other processors tell them is happening.
They aren’t linked to the internet, of course (although, maybe in the future?), but communicate over a central wiring system in the car. Individually, they are unremarkable, but what they do when they all talk to each other and make joint decisions makes our cars easier to operate and safer.
The IoT takes this all further. Each processor will be connected to the internet, often wirelessly, so the scope of where they can operate becomes wider. So a customer can create a design and a robot in an engineering company, perhaps on the other side of the world, can start making it.
Secondly, IoT devices are more intelligent and capable of easily being reprogrammed to do different jobs. This means retooling whole production lines becomes less frequent and the investment in machines can be carried over longer periods.
The way these new machines are programmed is a key difference too. IoT and particularly its offshoot the industrial internet of things (IIoT) usually refers to devices that can learn and make their own decisions. Reprogramming a machine becomes a case of showing the robot what you want it to do a few times. The robot, which will have a camera and other sensors, works it out and copies what you’re doing, and sophisticated robots will invent their own ways to improve the manufacturing process.
This is a big advantage over the hours of programming that would be required to get a ‘dumb’ machine to do the same job. It also means that the operators and controllers can do their jobs without having to learn a programming language.
The next step has been the adoption of collaborative robots, or cobots, which are smaller and cheaper than full-size industrial robots. They tend to be mobile and work alongside humans on production lines rather than being fixed in place and surrounded by cages.
They can learn by imitation and are taught to do the more repetitive takes like polishing, loading items into boxes and driving in screws.
Supply chain improvements
The benefits aren’t restricted to the engineering and manufacturing processes. Within the supply chain, embedded processors on transport vehicles and even stock can talk to each other.
For example, when refrigerated lorries are stuck in traffic they may turn their engines off to save fuel and reduce pollution. Once they get going again the temperature in the storage unit will drop again but when they get to their destination no one will know that the temperature had risen, or to what level.
On-the-fly decision making
With IoT connected processors the stock (or a sensor in the refrigerated unit) could suggest to the refrigeration unit that the driver needs to turn the engine or cooling system back on when the temperature rises to a particular level. A stock processor may even be able to use different warning levels depending on what it is carrying, making optimum use of fuel.
Finally, the processor in the stock can alert a central server to the temperature changes so that a supervisor can make a decision as to whether the stock needs to be recalled or not.
Speed and efficiency
The advantages outlined above for the supply chain come into the manufacturing process as well. With intelligent equipment and assets, downtime is reduced, repairs can be predicted and arranged for when they are less disruptive. Processes can be incrementally improved, delays minimised and potential for parallel working identified.
All of this results in improvements in speed and efficiency – ultimately lowering costs. It’s an exciting time to be involved in manufacturing.