The IoT (Internet of Things) is fast revolutionizing many things, but the biggest effect is currently seen in factories globally. Connected factories of the future will be made possible by automation, IT and IoT working hand in hand, taking automation to a complete new level by exploiting data, eliminating silos and connecting equipment. Given the numerous types of technologies, protocols and equipment being used in manufacturing environments today, the solutions will be found when IoT and IT converge to create connected factories that are truly smart.
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The concept of connected factories and everything it entails is collectively known as Industry 4.0. It encompasses a new way to organize manufacturing operations in flexible, connected and consolidated ways. The innovations focus mainly on enabling machines to communicate with one another across the factory floor, thereby improving cross-device functionality and data flow efficiency. In essence, it leverages technology to create better factories.
Many factories still have machines that work on their own. While one machine only performs function A, another will perform function B. A major challenge is to collect meaningful data about the ecosystem within the factory. To make decisions about output and performance, it is critical for factory managers to have information, including which machines need maintenance and which are working optimally.
Many IoT implementations need to be able to work on top of and with existing enterprise systems and equipment. It is therefore critical that a framework is put in place to enable communications and data sharing, irrespective of the protocols that are being used. The framework must be able to adapt to diverse applications and industries with minimal cost implications.
Ideally, an IoT enabled framework must be platform agnostic and should be capable of being leveraged to deliver a variety of connected services across industries. Some solutions available feature a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) that is layered and can easily be integrated with existing enterprise platforms and systems by making use of both application level adaptors and protocol adaptors.
Connected equipment and connected factory solutions typically connect a wide range of Digital Control Systems, robots, PLCs and sensors through an engineering framework to enable the acquisition of data from connected sources. Adding enterprise system integration and built in analytics allows the solution to offer real time data and intelligence for improved overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and productivity.
With low-powered, low-cost, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) platforms becoming available, managers can now make decisions based on real-time patterns and insights. It is conceivable that a factory manager could use wearable technology to connect to all machines on the factory floor. This device would then notify them of any anomalies in the manufacturing process in real time, suggesting solutions and even automatically implementing solutions based on previous data patterns.
Connected factory solutions will power the smart factories of the future and provide unheard of levels of predictability, efficiency and productivity.
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There is already a wide range of connected engineering solutions available to connect factories. These solutions could be deployed across industrial equipment, manufacturing environments, power generation, and machinery and components. This connectivity can then be leveraged for noticeable improvement in operational parameters. Solutions across the whole IoT value chain are already available, including:
- Interoperability and gateway solutions
- Sensors, integration and sensor enablement
- Predictive analytics
- Remote portals
- Automation and control, and manufacturing execution system (MES) integration
- Mobility solutions
These solutions don’t need to cost a fortune. It is possible to connect machines and systems to each other and the internet via super affordable intelligent gateways and sensors. These devices collect and process data and generate insights that are actionable. Another important technology is smart controllers. These enable robots and machines to communicate with each other, configure themselves, and enable automation.
Apart from massive funding from both private investors and governments, a major force behind the proliferation of the IIoT is its potential for scalability. As disparate systems are unable to communicate and exchange data, this presents a huge barrier to expansion. Connected and consolidated systems actually simplify both scalability and functionality, even though the technology behind connected infrastructure is complex.
The key lies in using a central console to consolidate everything. Having everything regulated and automated from a central hub makes it much easier to manage and control. Something that’s easier to manage is also less intimidating and easier to scale. This simplicity makes the prospect more attractive and stimulates growth.
Greater efficiency leads to bigger profits in the manufacturing industry, and downtime is the total opposite of this. Connected factories will help keep downtime to an absolute minimum, or even eliminate it completely, through constant equipment monitoring. This enables equipment breakdowns and failure to be pre-empted, and only sending engineers to essential areas reduces maintenance costs. This approach is far more efficient than doing traditional maintenance where part or all of the production line is shut down to evaluate and repair equipment manually.
- Complete programmability and traceability for all tools.
- Complete factory floor integration.
- Secure solution architecture for complete safety.
- Complete control and measurability as all tool parameters and actions performed by them are recorded and stored.
- Improved quality assurance through zero defects and early fault detection.
- New opportunities for business models including “Tools as a Service”, thereby lowering Capex.
- Support for new, flexible assembly processes.
Merging of vast amounts of data and centralizing control of a factory’s infrastructure does carry inherent risks. This will likely result in better security software being developed and implemented. Ensuring adequate data encryption and implementing and updating security software are going to be massive features of modern connected factories.
It is estimated that a massive 62% of American manufacturers still use only pen and paper to track manufacturing process stages. This is extremely inefficient and prone to human error. The proximity of connected factories will likely reduce this figure to 25% within the next 5 years. Factories that don’t change fast, are likely to go under soon due to sheer inefficiency.
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