The Age of the Internet of Things is in full swing—and manufacturing will never be the same.
Call it the next big thing. Really big. Over the past 20 years or so, the Internet has forever altered how things get made. Whether it’s computer-assisted design, or Web-based inventory management, or digital diagnostics, the Internet has forged a more streamlined—and thus more profitable—way of manufacturing goods.
The revolution is far from over. The advent of embedded technology in individual components of manufactured goods and other devices—along with wider networking—holds the promise of exponential advances for both the supply chain and the factory line. With the Internet of Things, products will be inextricably linked to the information about them, providing a huge boost to lean manufacturing and the cash-conversion cycle. The stakes are immense. This latest evolution is predicted to boost the revenues of global manufacturing by $15 trillion over the next 15 years. Companies that don’t fully embrace IoT risk falling behind competitors—or worse.
On March 26, Global Finance, in partnership with the Government of Ontario, hosted a panel discussion on the future of manufacturing. The august group of experts included Stephan Biller, chief manufacturing scientist at General Electric; Rick Huijbregts, vice president for industry transformation at Cisco Canada; Brad Jackson, vice president for strategic business development at Celestica; Walid Negm, global research and development director for Accenture Technology; and Steve West, senior director for business development at QNX Software Systems (a unit of Blackberry Technology Solutions).
The panel, which—appropriately—was a webinar, was led by Global Finance executive editor, Denise Bedell.
At its core, IoT is a fairly simple concept. As Bedell pointed out, “The IoT is about networking objects to gather and act on data about those objects and their interaction with the world around them.”
One example: With software embedded in machines on the factory floor, manufacturers can access and monitor real-time data about production, thus boosting efficiency. And since the software is connected to the Internet, employees in remote locations can see data about output and tweak supply lines to better sync the flow of parts headed for final assembly.
This basic concept, however, could turn manufacturing on its head. And the impact won’t be limited in scope. “The IoT has the potential to positively disrupt virtually every industry vertical that is out there,” said QNX’s West. That list runs the gamut from aerospace to healthcare to energy. Any device, any product with embedded software can be networked and transmitted over the Net.
Bear in mind, this is not a technology of the future, not the stuff of science fiction. It’s already here. The “IoT cat is out of the bag,” said Accenture Technology’s Negm. Deployment of initial applications won’t take long. As General Electric’s Biller noted, “enterprises can instantly begin employing IoT technology to connect the myriad data they already collect but that don’t necessarily talk to each other yet at a system level.”
This aggregation of information about parts and products and machinery—such as whether they’re functioning properly—will generate immediate returns. Experts say the IoT can quickly help businesses contain—or reduce—production costs. “Maintenance friendliness is a key driver for asset owners or operators,” said Accenture’s Negm. “If you manage a plant and want to make it more efficient, start by getting the low-hanging fruit.”
Longer term, scientists and corporate technology executives see the Internet of Things as Industrial Revolution 4.0. The possibilities of such technology test the limits of the imagination. Cisco Canada’s Huijbregts offered an example. “What if manufacturing is disrupted in such a way where all I have to do to get a product is download a file for some new design from the Internet and then 3D print it in my living room? “
Already, 3D printers are producing, among scores of things, computers and laptops and medical implants and devices. Car parts, too, have been manufactured using 3D printing.