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Asset Management to Be a Key in 'Internet of Things' Manufacturing Deployments

The Internet of Things is more than just a buzzword. Manufacturers are already deploying the technology in their organizations and have plans for further implementations in the near future.

The Internet of Things has generated a considerable amount of buzz in both the consumer and commercial worlds. The idea is that physical objects – or "Things" – are embedded with software, electronics, sensors and Internet connectivity that all allow the devices to communicate with manufacturers, users and even other objects with the same functionality.

On the business side, the Internet of Things is heralded as the integration between physical equipment and information technology systems. It allows objects to send and exchange data over the Internet (wireless and wired) to central databases and systems, giving businesses a wealth of granular data that can help them make decisions to improve efficiency and cut costs.

IoT expectations for the manufacturing sector

As reported by Plant Services, a recent study conducted by Forrester Research and sponsored by Zebra Technologies has turned up some interesting insights into how the manufacturing sector plans on adopting the IoT within its operations. In a survey of 600 decision-makers in the manufacturing industry, 97 percent indicated that the Internet of Things will be one of the most impactful technological changes in the industry.

This booming technological and operational trend has already established a solid foothold in the industry – 83 percent of respondents said their companies are already making use of the IoT in some part of their operations. Another 87 percent said their teams were ready to make further deployments.

As Plant Services noted, many of the survey's respondents were from manufacturers' IT, engineering, operations and product development departments. Reliability and maintenance decision-makers were not consulted during the survey. Jim Hilton, senior director and global manufacturing principal for Zebra Technologies, said that the results would have been different if maintenance teams were surveyed.

IoT deployments can have a significant impact on asset management and maintenance since they involve new asset types and introduce a deluge of data that teams need to prepare for if the implementation is to be successful. Regardless, Hilton sees the IoT as having a transformative effect on maintenance and operations.

"Human-machine interfaces, machine-to-machine and secure/remote visibility will most certainly raise the ability to re-think maintenance practices. Reactive will become preventative, then predictive. The quicker an operation can progress to productivity functionality, the quicker the return benefits will be realized," Hilton said.

Asset management and the Internet of Things – plans and challenges

For the most part, manufacturers are well aware of what the IoT can do for them. In terms of tangible business results, most business leaders are hoping the IoT can help them achieve two goals: improve the customer experience and gain deeper insights into their operations and supply chains.

For the latter, asset-intensive industries – like manufacturing – are expecting the IoT to dramatically improve their asset management practices. Another study from Forrester and SAP broke down what industries are expected to adopt and utilize IoT capabilities for their asset management and maintenance departments.

The study found that among industries such as manufacturing, construction, energy (utilities, oil and gas), aerospace and transportation/logistics, 66 percent of respondents said they have already implemented or plan to deploy IoT technologies for asset management purposes. But these plans will not be without their challenges.

The authors of the study explained that it's not as simple as just installing some software and buying new Internet-connected equipment. Becoming an IoT-powered business means fostering a seamless integration of both physical and digital assets and ensuring that the technology facilitates key operational processes. This means that significant investments in IT infrastructure must precede the deployment of the IoT, and the overall complexity of implementations can stump even the smartest organizations. Essentially, as interesting as the technology is on it's own, it means nothing if the business can't achieve its goals, such as improved efficiency, cost savings, safety, etc.

Additionally, the researchers found that many organizations have yet to determine executive ownership of IoT deployments. The IoT is a cross-functional initiative, so it's difficult to pin down exactly who should manage it and which department the budget for it should come from. Pre-existing organizational silos make it hard to coordinate IoT usage across functional areas, and if all executives aren't fully sold on the benefits, it may be tough to garner organizational support.

How IoT-generated data fits into an asset management and maintenance strategy

Regardless of the myriad challenges that come with the IoT, manufacturers can't simply ignore this trend. As Hilton stated, the IoT offers clear businesswide benefits, especially as it pertains to asset management and maintenance. But where exactly does Internet-connected technology fit in?

One of the most visible ways is how the IoT facilitates mass data collection from assets throughout the value chain. For example, if a certain component or subassembly of an asset is starting to perform at a suboptimal level, the asset itself will stream that data to a central system where maintenance managers can see it and put in a work order for repair before the asset fails completely.

This is known as predictive maintenance. Using an array of embedded monitoring tools, assets can consistently communicate the state of their thermal properties, lubrication levels, oil testing, vibrations and other key indicators of asset health. This data helps asset management teams spot deficiencies before they lead to unscheduled downtime. Here are a few reasons why this is so beneficial to manufacturers:

  • Requires less human intervention at the floor level. One of the major issues manufacturers are having today is finding talented young maintenance workers to fill the shoes of retiring ones. The IoT automates a lot of inspection and work order filling, reducing the need for large human teams.
  • Schedule maintenance around production runs. Today, many manufacturers are incorporating the lean manufacturing paradigm into their operations. This requires them to maximize uptime reliability to ensure that customer orders can be fulfilled as quickly as possible. Predictive maintenance makes it easy to schedule downtime for repairs, and production runs can be scheduled around planned maintenance thereby avoiding missed deadlines.
  • More easily track costs. A predictive maintenance program starts with a robust central database that keeps track of spare parts, work orders, asset conditions and other critical data needed to make smart financial decisions regarding the management of key assets. It's impossible for any business to cut costs if it doesn't know where they come from. Data-driven asset management makes it possible to divert resources to the highest-priority activities and justify further investments to executives.

The IoT's place in manufacturing is all but guaranteed, and while there are considerable hurdles that businesses must overcome to make full use of it, it appears that it will be a necessity to maintain a competitive advantage in the global marketplace.

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