The Internet of Things (IoT) Frenzy

  • November 03, 2014
  • Feature

Bill Lydon’s Automation Perspective

By Bill Lydon, Editor

There is a growing frenzy over the application of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to industrial automation. The question is, “Why do we want to do this?”

The high level goal is to improve manufacturing processes in a number of dimensions, including efficiency, responsiveness, and the ability to meet individual customer needs in a timely manner.

Almost every event (and I attend most of them) in the last 24 months includes presentations on the modernization of manufacturing using IoT technology, big data, and analytics. These presentations describe the new model as the next step in manufacturing evolution after Henry Ford’s mass production innovations. Ford’s production line and resulting standardization allowed Ford to delivered automobiles at a significantly lower price and enabled more people to buy them and expand the market. The result was sameness as indicated by this quote. "They can have a car any color they like, so long as it's black." That sameness worked in those times. The theme was centralized manufacturing plants and standardization. Mass production means the larger the quantity produced, the cheaper the run, assuming you can sell the products.

One of the reasons mass production has lasted so long is the technology has not been available to create responsive make-to-order manufacturing. Some companies tried in the 1980s with the idea of "digital manufacturing" and computer-integrated manufacturing concepts. Unfortunately, the concepts could not be accomplished with the technology available at the time. Today the technology is becoming available and the economics are making it feasible to accomplish mass customization. Future manufacturing systems will be able to produce inexpensive, personalized, quantity-one orders.

Making smart phones that users can customize with apps is far simpler than making other more complex products. Complex products will require the creation of flexible automation, flexible machines, and manufacturing systems integrated with business systems and the consumers.

The first applications of IoT, big data and analytics in manufacturing are overlays to existing automation systems and manufacturing machines. The next step to fully exploit flexible make-to-order manufacturing is a much bigger undertaking that will require the retrofit or replacement of machines and equipment. These changes are fundamental and expensive but may be required for companies to remain competitive. This type of change will radically change automation systems and manufacturing plant floors. Determining when and where to invest in new manufacturing technology has never been more risky and crucial to success.

There are a number of industry groups that are competing to be the leader in this next frontier of manufacturing. They include Industry 4.0, Industrial Internet Consortium, Industrial IP Advantage, Smart Factory, and Smart Manufacturing initiatives. Automation suppliers are also picking up the banner and asking you to follow and buy their solutions. Is the industry converging on leveraging the latest technologies? Or, are the battle lines being drawn for turf battles like we experienced with the fieldbus wars? The fieldbus wars resulted in users either implementing multiple architectures in their plants or they were forced to standardize on one vendor’s products and limit their options. These new initiatives are much broader in scope and have larger consequences if poor choices are made.

More automation will be required to accomplish flexible manufacturing. Consider automotive manufactures that have been investing in more flexible production lines. For example, Michael Bastian, Global Controls Manager at Ford Motor Company (Powertrain Division), described their flexible manufacturing mandates. Their production lines should produce two powertrains, two engines, and two transmissions per line. They also plan to add a third item without experiencing any production loss. Bastian stresses, “From a complexity-of-automation perspective that is a challenge because you need to be able to build an Inline 4 cylinder engine and a V6 on the same assembly line.” “You need a lot of automation to support that product flexibility.”

When discussing flexible manufacturing lines, automotive industry leaders talk about the difficulty of finding more automation and controls engineers. Greater levels of complexity make systems integration more challenging. Automation impacts all elements of the business and drives the need for more engineers. Engineers must be able to design and integrate more complex automation, parallel path processes, CNC machines, complex product assembly, safety, manufacturing execution systems (MES), and requirements to satisfy a wide range of government regulations around the world.

I believe the future will deliver building blocks to create new architectures using open interfaces based on worldwide standards. We need to get beyond tightly coupled systems that lock hardware and software together and create function-limiting dependencies. If the cell phone industry maintained multiple incompatible standards like the automation industry does today, you could not make a phone call to anyone around the world.

History teaches us that it is very hard for existing suppliers to adapt to major changes. New companies are created that understand the new paradigm. It is prudent not to make decisions based on hype and frenzy. I suggest that users need to learn as much as possible and educate their management about what is possible. The next step is for your organization to decide how much risk to take and how to remain competitive.

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