The idea of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is a grand reawakening of manufacturing. Many industry gurus call it a revolution, and there's very little evidence to suggest it is anything less. IIoT is the darling of manufacturing experts and media types. If it were a movie, it would be filmed in Technicolor and presented in CinemaScope, with Dolby Surround sound. IIoT is epic.
And perhaps that is IIoT's biggest problem today.
The idea that everyone could have access to every piece of data on the plant floor is overwhelming. Add in the idea that analytics could deliver the right data at the right time to the right person in the right context, and suddenly data becomes a tool to solve problems.
Strip away the theory and the hype, and you are left with some fundamental problems that IIoT can help solve for plant managers. IIoT can improve maintenance practices by better defining when a machine needs to be maintained, and it can end the strict time-based schedules.
IIoT also can be a great tool for managing energy costs, coordinating supply chains, understanding how and when work is done in assembly and turning the manufacturing operation into a single organism as opposed to a departmentalized hierarchy. At Hannover Messe this year, the only word heard more often than 'collaboration' was 'democratization'. It is a brilliant theory. It is game-changing in its implications, and at this point in its development, it is going to be the way we work in the future. That's a daunting, almost overwhelming concept, especially for small to mid-sized manufacturers.
We are stuck in our current way of doing things. We have a largely competent manufacturing process that produces generally excellent products in a relatively timely and efficient manner.
We use the adjectives "largely," "generally," and "relatively" to hedge our bets, even though we'd be far happier with a manufacturing operation that is "competent" as opposed to one that is "relatively competent."
We hedge our bets because there is risk in change, and these already are risky times in which we live. Add to this the enormous scope of IIoT, and we are reluctant to gamble on the future when the present is so comfortable.
So, between a big gamble and inertia, where should manufacturers go? Find those areas in your plant where you have some room to experiment. Maybe your maintenance costs have gone up on a particular line, or your downtime is an issue. Perhaps there's a department where productivity could be better, or where bottlenecks are so common they now are part of the process.
There is room for improvement in all processes. Data will be the way to point to the improvements, and data will make a compelling case to secure the funding needed for the process improvements. Very often, cost savings alone can pay for a project.
Often what's lacking is leadership within the plant. An IHS Markit study presented at Hannover Messe discussed a number of key issues about IIoT implementation, and mostly revolved around whether IIoT is the IT department's project, or whether operations should take the lead. While it is clear C-suite support is crucial, the hard work will be done in the trenches with operations and IT collaborating.
It is time to start getting better. I believe Plant Engineering's readers can provide that crucial leadership role around IIoT. It is time for the plant manager to lead on the issue of IIoT within manufacturing, because it will be the operations team that will turn the data into measurable improvement—into better maintenance, smarter production and increased efficiency.
You can lead the revolution, but you cannot lead it from the sidelines. It's time for a lunch with the IT department, and maybe a couple of other department heads. Ask one simple question:
"It's time; where do we begin?"