M2M Communication Is Prelude to "Smart" Manufacturing Systems

By Al Bredenberg
Credit: Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition
Machine-to-machine (M2M) communications in manufacturing operations are helping manufacturers produce products faster and at lower costs. But beyond that, they are also enabling qualitatively different, “smart” manufacturing operations that could transform the way a number of industrjes makes products, components and materials.

A recent report by research firm Frost & Sullivan, based in Mountain View, Calif., predicts that the “Internet of Things” (IoT) progression  in industrial automation, enabled by M2M communications, will allow the development of “smart manufacturing plants” over the remainder of this decade. On a bigger scale, between now and 2020, companies will progressively implement technologies such as wireless connectivity, enterprise mobility, cloud platforms, Big Data analytics, and advanced robotics to achieve “a fully connected plant floor” and “virtual interactive plants.”

In an interview with Tech Trends Journal, Vikrant Gandhi, Frost & Sullivan’s principal analyst for mobile and wireless technologies, said that a significant benefit that will come out of IoT deployments is greater efficiency. However, he stressed, “It is not just about optimizing and monitoring the actual manufacturing processes, such as real-time temperature and pressure control, adding, “it is also about ensuring operational efficiencies in manufacturing, including power consumption, supply chain management, proactive -- not reactive -- machine health monitoring, and even remote diagnostics and fault/error resolution.”

Frost & Sullivan research associate Shuba Ramkumar, who works in the firm’s information and communications technologies (ICT) practice and is author of the new report, in an interview with Tech Trends Journal, said that M2M and IoT technologies are already “reducing costs, increasing output, and decreasing wastage.”

But like Gandhi, Ramkumar emphasized that the benefits go beyond low-hanging fruit. “These technologies help make manufacturing smarter,” Ramkumar said. For example, she said, the technologies can “not only increase the scale of manufacturing, but encourage the manufacture of products with niche requirements.”

In other words, smaller and more highly specified production runs become increasingly feasible. “For example,” she said, “in the manufacture of paints or coatings, one product may require more of one ingredient than for another product. Manufacturers can record these specifications so that the right output is obtained without the need for human intervention.”

Ramkumar outlined several examples of how manufacturers are using IoT technologies right now:

●     In wireless connectivity, she said, “A U.K. manufacturer uses energy harvesting technology to power a wireless temperature transmitter for remote temperature measurements in the plant.”

●     In the area of asset management, “One manufacturer uses handsets powered by sensors to remotely track employees on the plant floor and ensure their safety.”

●     Big Data allows one solar [panel] manufacturer to use data-visualization tools in conducting “real-time analysis of the production performance, identifying defects and the root causes for them.”

As is often the case with cutting-edge technologies, implementation might be hard to predict right now, as new uses for innovative systems typically arise after businesses put them through their paces and evaluate the results. “Intelligence gained from the implementation of these technologies is one of the most important advancements” in moving M2M and IoT forward, Ramkumar said. “This will not just help reduce production time and increase output, but will initiate discussion about processes and inspire innovations in manufacturing in the long run.”

Advances in M2M communications are helping manufacturers achieve the first step toward two key objectives: (1) collecting data about processes on the plant floor and (2) transmitting information for control of devices. As the required technologies develop, connected machines will allow “faster identification of faults on the plant floor” and permit “transparency about the status of various processes,” according to the Frost & Sullivan report. Eventually, an automated, smart plant floor built on connected machines will “receive and respond to orders from central control systems and human machine interfaces.”

As reported previously in Tech Trends Journal, one of the important uses of M2M communications is emerging in conjunction with predictive analytics. Manufacturers are employing production analytics to decipher the condition of machines and help predict and prevent breakdowns. Data is captured from sensor-generated signals, and patterns, which are too complex for humans to comprehend, are analyzed. Integrated with enterprise resource planning or manufacturing operations management (MOM) systems, predictive analytics can “replace the usual cycle of ‘Break, Repair, Repeat,’” and eventually lead to self-healing machinery that doesn’t require human intervention.

Data analytics “provide insight into how to optimize and improve production processes,” according to Ramkumar. She said that “using sensors during the production process [can] ensure correct use of inputs, movement of objects, and efficient use of energy -- for example, a sensor that identifies the approach of an object and shifts the position of the object or lifts the object for easy packaging.”

Gandhi, whose general expertise is in mobile and wireless, stressed that the proliferation of M2M and IoT technologies has implications for firms beyond plant-floor operations. “If you expand your view to include virtual enterprise management,” he said, “aspects such as mobile enterprise asset management and maintenance, mobile access to MRO [maintenance and repair operations] and inventory management, mobile workforce management, mobile shop floor applications, and so on, are also important.”

Such a broader view illuminates the way IoT can impact larger organizational strategies. “Not everything on the shop floor will become cellular, but cellular will bring in new capabilities that will help organizations execute on their distributed-company strategies and empower the workforce,” Gandhi said.

Gandhi thinks increased industry standardization will greatly accelerate the adoption and capabilities of M2M and IoT deployments. “Connected monitoring has existed for a long time in manufacturing,” he said. “However, what is really interesting about the ongoing revolution is the migration from proprietary technologies to standard, IP-based protocols -- also, greater mashups between different data sets and formats to present actionable intelligence, and cost optimization.”


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