How the Connected Factory Is Shaping Manufacturing

Caroline Goan
July 6, 2016

The concept of the “connected factory” is fast becoming a reality for manufacturers. A range of innovations which loosely fall under the label of  “Industry 4.0” have all contributed to the flourishing of a consolidated, connected and flexible model of organizing factory operations. These innovations primarily relate to the ability of machines to effectively communicate with each other, the integrated flow of data to a centralized platform, and cross-device functionality. Fundamentally, connected factories rely on automation and digital management. Cyber-physical systems––those systems where digital technology and physical processes interact––have led to a large degree of self-regulation and efficiency-driving data insights. Where in the past, a large human presence was required on the factory floor, interconnected networks mean that the people responsible for monitoring and controlling production lines can do so remotely from a single interface. Indeed, the level of control that can be exercised from these remote consoles is often wide-ranging, encompassing a huge array of functions, from output level control to repair and maintenance. There’s a lot of vague terminology and buzzwords surrounding this understandably complex topic and in this post, we’re going to cut through some of the ambiguity. We’ve identified five key ways that connected factories are changing and disrupting manufacturing.

How the Connected Factory Is Shaping Manufacturing

1. Connected factories are reaching all parts of the supply chain.

The connected factory is able to effectively manage and consolidate inputs across a range of interacting devices and physical systems. On a factory-level, this machine-to-machine (M2M) communication works on a relatively simple basis, with processes and data being fed into and managed from a central platform. On a wider basis, however, information from previously separate parts of the supply chain are also being used to inform decisions on the factory floor, and vice versa. If you consider how enmeshed logistics networks have become with all parts of the supply chain, with data readily available at all points of transit, then you’ll have a good idea of how this works. B2B eCommerce is another good example. A retailer making a purchase on a shop floor in Boston is able to provide real-time data which will be used by a factory computer in Shanghai to manage output levels. This points towards an immensely well-connected and largely automated global system that the move towards “connected factories” is creating.

2. Data is taking center stage.

Advanced analytics tools that integrate with the collective digital infrastructure of connected factories are playing an increasingly vital role in manufacturing. M2M systems are able to deliver complex data sets which can be quickly used to drive innovations in efficiency and quality whilst minimizing waste. GE Technology reports a 5% increase in efficiency after simply attaching sensors to wind turbines, for example. It’s easy to dwell too much on the importance of big data, but the vital role it plays can’t be understated. Another key point is that the distinction between factory and enterprise-level data sharing is already becoming blurred. Many analytics processes, which will be responsible for identifying trends, pinpointing waste and predicting maintenance requirements, will be automated to a certain degree and encompass areas outside of the manufacturing sphere, such as at the wholesale and retail stages.

3. The Internet of things (IoT) is playing a key part.

The internet of things––all of the individual pieces of machinery and devices that are able to communicate with each other––is playing a vital role in the development of connected factories. The term “industrial internet” refers to the network of devices (machinery included), sensors (which track environmental changes) and software applications that are able to communicate with each other in an industrial setting. One of the obstacles to broad integration, however, is the lack of compatibility between machinery that runs on different protocols, as well as the presence of outdated legacy systems. This issue is being overcome by a definite trend of software and hardware developers to adhere to standards that allow for cross-device functionality and the use of common digital architecture. Organizations like the IIC (Industrial Internet Consortium) are also making strides in this area by providing standardized regulations. All of these improvements allow for multi-app integration with a single processor that is able to run and manage multiple tasks simultaneously whilst also isolating them.

4. Scalability is becoming key.

One of the forces behind the “Industry 4.0” shift, alongside a high degree of funding from both governments and private investors, is the potential for scalability that manufacturers in particular are picking up on. The disparate systems that characterized traditional factories, with their inability to exchange data and communicate with each other, presented obstacles to efficient expansion. Interestingly, whilst the technology behind connected infrastructure is complex, consolidated systems provide an increased degree of simplicity with regards to functionality and scalability. Consolidation means that systems can be updated, repaired, powered off and on and even tailored for optimum performance remotely from a central console. This high degree of automation and self-regulation further adds to the potential for scale. A Siemens report suggests that the automation market is worth in excess of $200 billion.

5. Attention is being paid to security.

With centralized control of infrastructure and the merging of vast amounts of data, the need for tight security is at the forefront of manufacturers’ minds. The ability to remotely update enterprise-wide security software, along with powerful encryption capabilities, are both important features of modern connected factories. Also worth mentioning is the growing number of third-party software developers that are catering to smaller manufacturers. Companies like McAfee and Norton, which provide out-of-the-box integrations with core factory software, have done away with the common notion that modern security concerns demand in-house solutions. Physical security devices, like keypad entry systems and cameras, will also be managed and monitored as part of a consolidated system. There will also be a degree of self-regulation within these systems that will lead to further efficiency. So that’s our take on the modern phenomenon of the connected factory. What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments section below!