How IoT is Impacting Factories

By 2020, IBM predicts that total human knowledge will be doubling every 12 hours. This rapid collection of data is made possible by the advancement of IoT, or the “Internet of Things.” IoT is the network of sensors, software, electronics, and other means of connecting and exchanging data around us. Common examples include Fitbits (wearable monitoring technology), “connected” vehicles that can access the internet, and smart homes with intelligent air-conditioning, lighting, and security systems.

However, IoT is not limited to consumer products.

The Internet of Things also plays a role in industries such as health, transportation, and manufacturing. In the coming years, factories in particular will be seeing great improvements as a result of Industrial IoT, or IIoT for short. By digitizing manufacturing and industrial processes, IIoT enables higher production capabilities, increased efficiency, and safer working conditions.

The Internet of Things is rapidly impacting factories in new and exciting ways

CBInsights reports that as of 2016, IIoT accounted for over one-third of the entire field of IoT. These technologies are helping factories become more optimized than ever:

  • Wearable tech, AR (augmented reality), and VR (virtual reality) allows factory workers to complete their tasks more safely, conveniently, and effectively.
  • Machines, specialized sensors, cloud platforms, networking infrastructure, and machine learning software extract and analyze data at every step of production. Companies can then use these insights to maximize efficiency.

How are wearables (wearable technology) being used in factories? According to Statista, there are currently (as of 2018) 453 million connected wearable devices globally, and an increasing number of those devices are designed and used for factory settings. Examples include smart-glasses, monitoring devices, and personal protective equipment. Wearable tech can track user data and let workers:

  • Interact with cobots (collaborative robots that work with humans)

  • Monitor their own health and safety

One company, Kinetic, produces posture-monitoring devices that can be attached to workers’ belts. These devices have been shown to reduce risk of sprain and strain through alerting the user when they have put themselves in a physically dangerous position.

Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality are also making their way into factories. AR superimposes graphics into the present reality, hence “augmenting” reality. On the other hand, VR transposes the user to a virtual environment. These technologies can provide interactive workspaces and useful simulations, ultimately encouraging precision, efficiency, and convenience in factories. Examples include:

  • AR inventory management : DHL has utilized Google Glass and other AR head-mounted displays to assist workers with locating and identifying shelved packages.
  • VR remote maintenance and inspection: manufacturing equipment developers, such as Gabler, allow inspectors to remotely inspect factories, saving them time and resources.

Most importantly, IIoT helps factories monitor their machines. Machine failures can cost companies billions of dollars as well as endanger human lives, and that’s where IIoT comes in. In the realm of heavy industry, IoT collects big data from machines and then feeds it to AI (artificial intelligence) -- specifically machine learning -- for data analyzation, pattern detection, and prediction-making.

This process, otherwise known as predictive analytics, produces insights that aid factories in preventing machine accidents and breakdowns. Predictive analytics can also help identify and reduce machine inefficiencies and downtime, ensuring that all components of the factory are utilized to their fullest potential.

Robotics play a vital role in factories as well. As AI-driven robots become smaller, cheaper, and easier to develop and use, more and more companies are integrating them into their factories. Between 2017 and 2020, the global number of industrial robots is expected to increase by 15% per year on average (1.7 million new robots altogether) according to RNA Automation.

Smart robots can automatically respond to feedback that they collect and make adjustments to their current tasks accordingly, eliminating the need for human intervention. Robots can also complete tasks, such as managing inventory, with higher speed and accuracy than their human counterparts. The ultimate goal for many is to have fully-automated factories. Adidas and Amazon have already implemented such factories, and others are following their footsteps.

Popular technologies that can be paired with IIoT include machine vision, 3D printing, and blockchain.

  • Machine vision (computer vision for industrial applications) is the ability for a computer to capture, process, and act upon images taken in from optical sensors. In factories, machine vision allows for quality assurance and an extra line of safety.

  • 3D printing has been popular in industries since the late 1980s. Today, manufacturers can cost-effectively 3D-print tools and components. BMW and Rolls Royce are automakers that have done just that, printing out plastic holders, electronic parking brakes, and sockets for their cars.

  • Blockchain technology can ensure security in factories through registering and verifying IIoT devices on the public blockchain ledger. IoT sensors can also timestamp data onto the blockchain to prevent manipulations.

The digital revolution of IIoT has been coined different terms, including the Factory of the Future, Smart Manufacturing, Industry 4.0, and the Digital Enterprise. No matter what you call it, it is evident that IIoT will continue to expand in the coming years, bringing higher efficiency, productivity, and safety to factories worldwide.

Michael Kwok