Smart manufacturing: the age of the Industrial Internet of Things

Grant Caley, Principal Technology Officer UK&I, NetApp, explains why we need to take smarter approaches to smart manufacturing.

Industry 4.0 refers to the Fourth Industrial Revolution – the first being manufacturing and mechanisation, the second mass production, and the third the digital revolution. The next iteration will be the computerisation of machinery and automation using robotics, as well as the intelligent measurement and analysis of data to improve efficiency, profitability and safety. We have to go back to 2013 to examine the roots of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – when the term ‘Industrie 4.0’ was first documented in Germany. The high-tech strategy outlined a plan to almost fully computerise German manufacturing, taking complete advantage of connected devices and M2M communications.

This is how smart manufacturing and industrial automation, both part of the over-arching Industrie 4.0 concept, have permeated the wider Internet of Things (IoT) conversation. The sheer volume of sensors and devices that will be connected within the manufacturing ecosystem and will transmit information across industrial networks is akin to an Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). It is important not to confuse terms such as smart manufacturing and industrial automation with Industrie 4.0 or IIoT, as the wider strategic industrial concept refers to a far broader range of industries than just manufacturing.

Smart manufacturing aims to increase productivity in factories by reducing human error. In factories, warehouses and production lines, which are already highly automated and reliant on machinery and technology, one broken cog in the machine can bring operations to a standstill and negatively affect the bottom line of a business. An IT revolution will not only benefit the manufacturing industry positively in terms of increasing efficiency and reducing cost, but it will also make for a safer, more sustainable and less wasteful industrial sector. Far from replacing skilled workers, connected machines and an intelligent network has the potential to stimulate a new manufacturing revolution, creating jobs indirectly in data science and analysis, as well as further physical labouring posts as manufacturing companies grow thanks to the efficiencies brought about by technology.

IIoT – the connectivity conundrum

The first area to consider when looking at the IIoT for manufacturing is the devices that will make it up – the input. By 2020, Cisco estimates that there will be 50 billion connected devices. The explosion of devices is not solely due to growth in the connected devices we are used to. While the numbers of smartphones, tablets and wearables has increased, the dramatic growth of connected devices is due to previously ‘dumb’ devices becoming ‘smart’. From light bulbs to industrial machinery and kettles to robots – the number of devices that are connected to the internet and able to communicate with other connected systems is staggering.

With smart devices and a heavier reliance on automated systems, there are a number of considerations for the manufacturing industry as we move towards smart factories becoming a reality. For example, smart devices are essentially ‘always-on’ systems – they are constantly collecting data and communicating. Furthermore, when traditionally ‘dumb’ objects are replaced with ‘smart’ equivalents, there are potential issues with security. Therefore, the explosion of devices not only brings a challenge in terms of adding volume, complexity and traffic to the connected factory, but every new device is a potential security weakness. A security breach in a smart factory environment not only has the potential for dire financial implications, but could also compromise the safety of workers, should automated machinery fail or even be controlled by malicious cyber attackers.

Therefore, device, network and data security all require investment and attention. The smart factory runs on machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. Simply put, this is the process of objects communicating via an internet connection. M2M communications rely firstly on sensors within the device itself, but also on the networks that connect devices together. These networks must be highly resilient, flexible and intelligent. Network security is a huge bone of contention when it comes to security within the IIoT conversation as if this is compromised malicious attackers may be able to disrupt machinery and operations or access data that is sensitive to the organisation, its employees or its customers.

Data informs smarter approaches

Ultimately, the output of the IIoT and smart manufacturing has to be that factories increase output, reduce costs and that companies see healthier profits as a result. The key to deriving the strategic value from the IIoT, which will revolutionise manufacturing, is data. Managing IIoT data is a monumental challenge, for the vast majority of it will be neither valuable nor insightful. So, complex analytics and algorithms will be required to decide whether specific data sets are worth storing or whether they should be discarded. Furthermore, questions need to be asked of the data to contextualise it against other data sets. We also need to understand what data needs to be prioritised or treated with extreme caution in terms of privacy and security, based on its importance and sensitivity.

The businesses that are able to harness the power of IIoT data will be able to realise the true potential of smart manufacturing in both senses of the phrase. Firstly, reaping the benefits of connected machines and M2M communications. Secondly, using data to inform more intelligent business models and strategies.


Edited for web by Cecilia Rehn.