IoT and the Factory of the Future

Today’s western economies are no longer the place of grimy smokestacks and oily rags. These have long gone, and the UK, like many other countries, has gone through a period of significant deindustrialisation in recent decades.

22 September 2017

IoT and Factory of the Future

Today’s western economies are no longer the place of grimy smokestacks and oily rags. These have long gone, and the UK, like many other countries, has gone through a period of significant deindustrialisation in recent decades.

By Mitchell Duncan, Technical Analyst

Manufacturing has traditionally been considered to be a process that turns raw materials into physical products. Nowadays, manufacturers see physical production as part of a value chain that encompasses more IT than bending and cutting metal.

Technology at the heart of change

The biggest changes to the factory of the future will come from technology. For example: the use of computer-aided design and simulation reduces the time and cost of bringing new goods to market; advanced robotics makes automation cheaper and more flexible; new materials, such as nanoparticles, will give products novel properties; and new production processes, such as 3D printing which makes things by building layer upon layer of plastic and metals, already used by designers to make prototype parts, are now utilized by engineering firms to make finalised products.

At the heart of this revolution is the communication between elements in the manufacturing chain – the Internet of Things (IoTs). This is where the previously isolated subsystems in the traditional design-production-delivery-service manufacturing lifecycle are replaced by a network of interconnected devices and computer systems which will run processes that are re-configurable from end-to-end more easily.

In order for this goal to be realised, each device or component has to be equipped with the ability to communicate, interoperate and possibly integrate with all others in their immediate network. This applies not only to new devices in the factory but to older devices which will require upgrading. The goal is to have these devices continually monitoring their environment, communicating their data from sensors while all the while continuing to respond to normal operational control commands.

This should be supported by operational visibility of devices, as well as respective information modelling and analytics mechanisms which link device information to the application-specific context, e.g., the specific order, product and process. An example of this would be a welding robot, which fabricates a machine sub-unit, will require a consumable such as alloy rods for the welding process. Despite being well stocked for daily running, the production system overall should be able to monitor and control the supply of consumables to the robot to avoid breaks in production.

A significant challenge

This ’interconnectedness’ presents a significant challenge; that is the processing of the huge amount of data originating as a result of this device intelligence, collaboration and connectivity. This is an area of IT known as ‘Big Data’ for which many tools exist for collecting, collating, filtering and/or storing data.

In order to advance beyond the state of the art in event processing and real-time data analysis to the forecasting of complex business and operational scenarios, the industry requires the development of new systems. These systems should provide the business with more than just the successful implementation a framework for connecting and collecting data from devices and sub-systems. They would allow it to extract real value from these new, distributed IoT-based and networked elements by providing full transparency across all stages of the manufacturing process, allowing it to optimise operational efficiency, guarantee seamless tracking and tracing of work, and facilitating compliance monitoring of processes, all in real time. They should also link seamlessly with existing business management systems to add acuity to the financial decision making processes.

To date, only a small fraction of industrial systems have simple network-based telemetry gathering, and so the greatest opportunities for growth exist in so called "brown field" applications. These are instances of simply upgrading or enhancing existing hardware in factories, refineries, office buildings and other physical plants with the ability to communicate and be integrated with the manufacturing network.

With the global shift towards the Factory of the Future, research and development into the Internet of Things is assured a broad scope. The technological challenges seem almost limitless, with the appetite for innovation in industry met only by the ability of developers and researchers to keep pace with the demands.