Automation has made manufacturing more advanced than ever before. But automation doesn’t just mean faster production. What many businesses don’t realize is that they can glean insights about their products and customers and bring that analysis straight to the factory floor.
Everything is connected, and in the Internet Age, that includes businesses. Combining smart manufacturing processes and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technology with the cloud can bring businesses crucial data that can improve operations, enhance scalability, and even boost sales.
What is smart manufacturing?
Smart manufacturing relies on digital information technology and computer-integrated manufacturing processes to automate production. These processes are used today to make everything from high-tech robotics equipment to everyday consumer goods. It’s not uncommon for smart factories, the facilities that deploy these techniques, to be fully automated, requiring little to no human intervention.
The flexibility that a smart manufacturing ecosystem can bring to businesses enables rapid changes in production levels, optimized supply chain logistics, and greater overall efficiency. With fewer people on high-tech factory floors, these businesses also reduce workplace injuries and hazards when compared to more traditional manufacturing.
How does it all come together? Smart manufacturing uses sensors and devices found in what is known as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
What is the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)?
In recent years, the Internet of Things (IoT) has become a household term, and more people are using IoT devices than ever before. The smart watches, personal fitness devices, and home automation systems we use continually send and receive information and keep us connected 24/7. From these devices, we can stay up to date with our personal communications, monitor our health and wellness, and keep our homes energy efficient and secure.
The Industrial Internet of Things goes beyond personal devices to provide automation and process improvements for a variety of industrial operations. According to GE, IIoT devices can “monitor, collect, exchange, analyze, and deliver valuable new insights” which can “help drive smarter, faster business decisions for industrial companies.” Sectors such as manufacturing, logistics, oil and gas, energy utilities, mining, transportation and aviation, and more all connect users to facilities using the IIoT.
Of these, manufacturing is by far the largest IIoT market. According to analyst firm IDC, manufacturing operations accounted for $102.5 billion IoT spend out of the total $178 billion IoT market in 2016. Last year, IDC predicted that by 2022, worldwide spending on IoT technology could reach $1.2 trillion.
The Industrial Internet of Things brings several benefits to manufacturers’ production lines. According to research from Morgan Stanley, executives reported that IIoT adoption helped their businesses improve operational efficiency and productivity, reduce downtime, and create new business opportunities thanks to the improvements in efficiency and cost effectiveness. Yet that’s not where the benefits of connectedness end.
How does IIoT connect to cloud computing?
One of the primary concerns with using IoT in manufacturing and other sectors is that it generates a lot of data. Businesses need a place to be able to store and access that data. For this purpose, they turn to the cloud.
The largest three public cloud vendors include Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform. AWS holds a 38% market share, according to Synergy Research Group statistics for Q1 2019. Azure is second, at 18%, while Google Cloud Platform comes in third at 9% market share.
While these platforms are similar in scope, they all have their own unique benefits. IIoT and cloud computing are complementary technologies. However, it’s important for manufacturers to research the features of any cloud service to ensure compatibility with their IIoT operations.
How do manufacturers benefit from connecting IIoT and the cloud?
How does choosing the cloud help businesses with their IIoT infrastructure? Moving to the cloud brings manufacturers numerous operational and competitive advantages.
Reduced overhead and increased profit margin
According to AWS’s list of the six advantages of cloud computing, the variable expenses of cloud enable businesses to pay only for the resources they use. This, in turn, helps them reduce or altogether eliminate costs related to running a data center. By avoiding the high costs of running their own data centers, businesses can see a higher profit margin.
Greater flexibility and data monitoring
With the cloud, managers and employees can monitor machinery from any location–even off-site. Smart factories can let technicians know when problems occur on the automation assembly line and notify them of factory equipment requiring maintenance. Connecting IIoT to the cloud gives businesses additional flexibility by letting employees work from virtually anywhere in the world.
Improved scalability for discrete manufacturing
IIoT and cloud applications can enhance manufacturing operations at any scale. Known as discrete manufacturing, this method enables manufacturers to build products with high complexity in low volumes, or conversely, produce high volumes of products with lower complexity. IIoT allows manufacturers to scale their production up or down accordingly.
Better customer insights and promotions
Smart factories help companies make better decisions based on customer information. According to Microsoft, which offers Azure solutions to manufacturers, this data can help sales teams increase productivity “by using customer and service data to identify cross-sell and up-sell opportunities.” With this data, businesses know which products are being sold and can use IIoT data to create specialized and targeted offerings for customers.
More competitive product development and logistics
When combined with cloud computing, IIoT facilities have real-time product usage data and customer feedback at their fingertips. Quality issues can be resolved on the factory floor, leading to less waste and reduced mitigation costs. Applying machine learning to the data in the cloud can provide businesses with actionable insights for future phases of product development, resulting in increased sales and greater customer satisfaction. Additionally, this brings businesses closer to an on-demand model when it comes to their production and enables customers to place unique orders without the additional wait time for the product to arrive.
How can you begin merging IIoT and the cloud?
Integrating IIoT operations into the cloud is a complex process. With good planning, however, manufacturers can meet these challenges head-on.
How can you bring your facility’s data to the cloud? Start with the following steps:
1. Determine your goals
It’s important to set expectations early. What business outcomes does your organization hope to achieve with a move to the cloud? Think about the advantages above, and make sure that everyone is aligned around common objectives.
2. Consider data storage and access
One of the benefits of the cloud is that it can be run from anywhere. Some businesses prefer to use edge computing methods, bringing the data storage closer to the location where it is needed to improve response times. For example, Azure links well with on-premise Microsoft systems such as Windows Server, System Center, and Active Directory. Vendors like Azure have hybrid cloud solutions to help you manage data from multiple sources.
3. Start small
Have a lot of data to move over? You might need to start out with a pilot program or commit to migrating just a portion of operations over to the cloud as you begin. Cloud vendors may offer free trials to give your business the option to try before you buy. Above all, aiming for gradual growth of cloud usage can help you avoid disrupting employee workflows and operations.
4. Turn insights into action
When you begin to see results from a pilot program or trial, you should be able to gather the data and analyze the results.
- What successes did you see?
- Where is there room for improvement?
Documenting these outcomes is also key to getting buy-in from the executives in your organization who will ultimately sign off on the purchase.
5. Get help
When it comes to merging cloud and IIoT, you don’t have to do everything on your own. Look into comprehensive cloud management platforms to help you handle compliance, security, automation, and other top business priorities.
Want to learn how to bring your production line into the future?
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