Connecting the bits

Internet of Things technology improves production, service for manufacturers

Posted on Sep 15, 2016 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

If you’ve watched a recent NFL game you’ve seen the future of industry.

It’s not the glitzy commercials for traditional companies such as GE or the multitude of software and high-tech companies that have attached their message to the NFL’s weekly broadcasts. It’s so routine, most folks probably don’t even notice anymore.

This view to the future happens every time an analyst isolates a player on a replay to explain how they moved or reacted on a given play. The technology that creates the highlight ring around the player and tracks their movements is courtesy of a sensor in the player’s shoulder pads that tracks their movement on the field within six inches.

Not bad for a sensor developed to keep track of a car moving through the assembly plant.

“That technology was born in manufacturing and everyone thought it was pretty boring until the NFL started using it,” says Jim Hilton, director of marketing strategies for Zebra Technologies, which has one of its global facilities in Greenville. “It was a product developed so car manufactures could pinpoint the location of a particular vehicle in a sea of similar looking cars on a production lot.”

Welcome to the Internet of Things.

As more and more of the world is plugged in — billions of devices, sensors, parts and machines now have Internet addresses with more added every day — the data generated can empower consumers, producers and service providers to create and enjoy more reliable, customized and improved products.

For manufacturers in particular, that future is already here as IoT technology has found its way onto the production floor, the warehouse and into the service manager’s smartphone.  Manufacturing is considered an early adopter of the technology. By 2018, 60 percent of global manufacturers are expected to have integrated IoT technology to harness that data and actively use it to improve their processes and products.

IoT in the New North

Early adapters can be found right here in Northeast Wisconsin.

Take welding, for instance. It might be hard to imagine linking welding — the basics of the process go back several millennia — to something as modern as IoT, big data and the cloud. But that is exactly what Appleton-based Miller Electric Manufacturing has done with some if its latest welding equipment.

The company has melded together its latest welding equipment with advanced sensors and monitoring equipment to provide real-time data on the performance of welders and the welding process during fabrication. The data can be used to monitor everything from the quality of welds to the amount of down time in a particular welding cell.

Manufacturers can use the data to improve the quality of the product and improve the processes used to produce it, says Caleb Krisher, business development manager at Miller Electric.

“It’s actually something we were doing long before the term ‘Internet of Things’ became popular,” Krisher says. “Welding fabrication is one of the last frontiers of providing tools that help you do the job.”

Some of the common applications clients seek from Miller equipment include the amount of time the machine is on, the sequence of welds, the rate of materials used and missed welds. Much of it depends on how advanced the client is with its processes. Of course, metrics about the quality of the weld are paramount, he says.

“You want to be able to identify problems right now on the shop floor,” Krisher says. “On the shop floor, a fix might only be $300. If it’s missed, and there is a catastrophic failure in the field, it could be millions.”

More advanced users are also seeking the data that will help them improve the company’s overall processes — information that can bolster efforts to employ lean techniques throughout an organization. One key metric in this category is a data-point that shows the amount of time actually spent welding.

In many cases, that number might range from 10 to 15 percent, letting floor supervisors know they have a bottleneck that is reducing productivity. In one situation Krisher recalls, a company exploring that data learned its welders were spending nearly 30 percent of their shift looking for parts that were not being delivered on time.

“Information from the welding cell can expose underlying problems that may be causing downtime,” he says.

Ripon-based Alliance Laundry Systems has also been quick to adapt IoT concepts to its products, again, introducing them long before the term entered the common lexicon.

Several years ago, Alliance added Internet technology to several lines of its commercial laundry equipment, particularly those used in laundromats and by what the company refers to as route operators, which may have multiple locations in buildings such as college dormitories or apartment complexes.

The technology added by Alliance is both customer- and client-facing and allows both to connect with a machine via a mobile device or computer.

For the customer experience, the machines will text messages when a load is done or a machine is available — a great feature in an apartment complex or dormitory setting. Meanwhile, operators receive real-time information about the machine’s performance, giving them the ability to spot problems before they result in downtime and lost revenue.

Alliance provides equipment to route operators working with thousands of machines, making such a connection vital to successfully manage the business.

Staying one step ahead

That ability to learn about potential failures — and act upon them before they occur — presents some great opportunities to the customer service operation of many manufacturers, says Don Slickman, director of business development at Omni Resources, which has worked with multiple clients — including Miller Electric — on building and managing IoT infrastructure.

“If you have a part that is rated for a lifetime of 10,000 hours, a service procedure can be initiated when the part reaches 9,000 hours,” Slickman says. “That can be a huge return on the technology investment.”

That predictive function can help companies build better relationships, empowering them to deploy service personnel with the exact parts and tools necessary for the job, well in advance of a complete failure that could lead to downtime and costly delays for customers. That’s a plus given the specialized tools and parts used by many of the region’s advanced manufacturers.

While IoT technology opens up an array of possible applications for Omni to work with clients on customized solutions, Slickman says the company is seeing most of the efforts concentrated around a couple of key areas for manufacturers: the manufacturing floor to meter workflow and processes; managing the supply chain and inventory; and customer service.

As in the example of the Zebra sensor designed to track cars, Slickman says using the technology to track items through the supply chain and the inventory in the warehouse helps companies improve their lean processes, eliminate waste and excess raw materials as well as improve delivery to customers.

He can easily see the technology spreading to involve third parties such as equipment dealers who can use the data to better service the product, as well as send back sales and service data that could be used to ensure production of more popular products, while also improving performance.

“We are already seeing that whole predictive supply chain,” Slickman says. “The bottleneck right now is improving the connectivity.”

It not only takes significant bandwidth to connect the devices and transmit the data (a single jet engine manufactured by General Electric can generate more than 3 million data points per second), creating software to make the data useable is a growth area for companies such as Omni and Zebra.

“Vast amounts of the data are routine and show that things are normal,” says Hilton, who was with Motorola before Zebra acquired the sensor division used in its IoT technologies. “In some ways, it’s similar to the old way of leafing through paper reports to spot the problem. Now, we have an algorithm that solves it much faster.”

Because of variables such as where the data needs to be viewed and on what devices, both Zebra and Omni develop custom software that can deliver key alerts to a floor supervisor in real time with a mobile device.  The software can also send a complete spread of analytics ownership and management can analyze in batches to look for larger trends.

Zebra has even created virtual machines that allow manufacturing processes to be viewed in real time from a monitor.

As the technology continues to evolve, so will the solutions and the data generated, causing some industry watchers and policymakers to question the security of the data, who owns it and how it can be used — a debate that can be expected to continue as more companies adopt IoT technology.

That pace is ramping up and Northeast Wisconsin is no exception.

“We are dealing with a lot of manufacturers and we are having a lot of conversations,” Slickman says.