Given today’s leading-edge capabilities, it’s reasonable to envision — and prepare for — a data-driven factory of the future where all internal and external activities are connected through the same information platform. Customers, designers, and operators will share information on everything from initial concepts, to installation, to performance feedback throughout the life cycle. Operators will access materials on demand, collaborate with robots to use them safely and ergonomically, and rely on virtual work instructions presented at the point of use. Assembly lines will output highly personalized products, sometimes in a lot size of one, that contain zero defects.
But what breakthrough equipment, ideas, and processes will have the greatest impact on factory environments? The following four technology categories are already driving much of the change.
- Internet of Things (IoT): The connected factory is an idea that has been evolving for the past few years. Increasingly, it means expanding the power of the Web to link machines, sensors, computers, and humans in order to enable new levels of information monitoring, collection, processing, and analysis. These devices provide more precision and can translate collected data into insights that, for example, help to determine the amount of voltage used to produce a product or to better understand how temperature, pressure, and humidity impact performance. Stanley Black & Decker has adapted the Internet of Things in a plant in Mexico to monitor the status of production lines in real time via mobile devices and Wi-Fi RFID tags. As a result, overall equipment effectiveness has increased by 24 percent, labor utilization by 10 percent, and throughput by 10 percent.
But for industrial manufacturing companies, the next generation of IoT technology should go well beyond real-time monitoring to connected information platforms that leverage data and advanced analytics to deliver higher-quality, more durable, and more reliable products. A hint of this can be seen in wind turbines manufactured by General Electric. This equipment contains some 20,000 sensors that produce 400 data points per second. Immediate, ongoing analysis of this data allows GE and its customers to optimize turbine performance and proactively make decisions about maintenance and parts replacement.
Before investing in IoT, however, industrial manufacturing companies must determine precisely what data is most valuable to collect, as well as gauge the efficacy of the analytical structures that will be used to assess the data. In addition, next-generation equipment will require a next-generation mix of workers, which should include employees who can design and build IoT products as well as data scientists who can analyze output.