Creating The Internet of Everything
From factory floor to retail store, companies are linking up products, conveyances, machines, and tools along the entire supply chain.
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If you're like most people today, you're already connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) in your private life—through your fitness tracker or thermostat, and most certainly through your phone. If this technology isn't also established in your business, it's only a matter of time.
By 2020, IoT will encompass 20.4 billion "things," predicts Gartner. And the subset of IoT known as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) will add $14.2 trillion to the global economy by 2030, according to Accenture.
Like IoT, the term IIoT refers to a constellation of data sources—sensors, mobile devices, cameras, computers, and other systems that capture information—along with the networks and software platforms that assemble the data and put it to use.
IIoT includes IoT not just in settings such as manufacturing and freight transportation, but also in arenas including healthcare and retail. "We characterize IIoT in terms of factors such as industrial-strength requirements, and involving safety and people's lives," says Stephen Mellor, chief technology officer at the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) in Needham, Massachusetts.
In the supply chain, the notion of capturing data from "things" is not exactly new. For many years, companies have used capture devices such as barcode scanners, radio frequency identification (RFID) readers, and GPS antennas to take data from products in warehouses, in transit, on retail shelves, and at the point of sale.
In the beginning, that data mainly drove processes within a company's own four walls. Today, many of the systems using captured data have moved into the cloud. And vendors have developed internet-based platforms where trading partners share data and use it for new purposes, such as predictive analytics. They've added new data capture technologies to the mix, and they've started conversations between machines and other machines.
As IIoT evolves into an Internet of Everything, new solutions are creating benefits all along the supply chain.
Stock and Load
For instance, over the past two years, Zebra Technologies—known for a broad range of data capture solutions—has combined several kinds of sensors in two new IIoT solutions, one for retail locations and one for the loading dock.
SmartLens for Retail unites RFID, video sensors, video analytics, and ultrasonic microlocation sensors in an appliance that monitors inventory in a store. The RFID readers capture data from tags attached to inventory, while the other technologies focus on the products themselves.
"The video analytics and locationing can make different inferences about inventory that's in motion and what or who is associated with it," says Mark Wheeler, director of supply chain solutions at Zebra Technologies in Lincolnshire, Illinois. A retailer mounts the appliances on the ceiling at various points around the store and uses the analytics to gain business intelligence.
SmartPack Trailer also combines several different sensors in an appliance, in this case mounted near a trailer that's being loaded or unloaded. Using video and three-dimensional sensing, the system monitors the work to see how effectively the company is using space inside the trailer.
"We're able to derive actionable intelligence from that information and then provide it to a mobile manager," Wheeler says.
Viewing the metrics on a mobile computer, the manager can make real-time decisions about how the company should use its assets. "Do I need to schedule another truck because this one is going to fill up soon? Or am I not going to make my cutoff time? Maybe I need to put more resources on it to get that done," Wheeler says.
In September 2017, Zebra announced a new IoT-based product called Savanna, which is a development platform that provides a consistent way to access data from multiple kinds of sensors, and to apply analytics. The goal is to make it easier for third parties to create IoT-based solutions of their own.
Zebra is currently working with five companies—Baidu Cloud, The Descartes Systems Group, Problem Solutions, Reflexis Systems, and StayLinked Corporation—to develop vertical solutions based on Savanna.
Like Zebra, global logistics and supply chain management company C.H. Robinson is focusing hard on IoT. In late 2017, the company sponsored a whitepaper that explains how IoT-based systems could improve efficiency in the global supply chain. One of the business cases this paper examines concerns the semiconductor supply chain.
When shipping equipment used to produce semiconductors, companies can use sensors to collect data on a variety of factors. "The information could include the weather conditions encountered by the aircraft transporting sensitive and high-value equipment, vibration ratings from shock and tilt sensors, and many other kinds of data," says Stephen Huang, manager of C.H. Robinson's Asia operations, which are based in Shanghai.
Applying predictive modeling to this data, a company could determine which weather conditions are most likely to harm the product. Then it could alter the routes of air shipments to avoid that kind of weather, the whitepaper says. The company might also use the data to figure out what packaging would best protect the equipment in transit. In addition, manufacturers and their logistics service providers could use data derived from IoT systems to better manage inventories.
C.H. Robinson is using some of these concepts in its work with a manufacturer that ships tools from Taiwan and the United States to its factories in China. All sensitive and high-value equipment moves by air.
"The airfreight shipments have sensors that can warn of potential damage in the packaging during transport," Huang says. "If the sensors record a shock or tilt on the shipment, our team notifies the company."
In China, IoT has become particularly important for transporting fresh produce, Huang says. For example, companies use temperature sensors to make sure they maintain the cold chain from the time of harvest all the way to the warehouse. Food companies that sell to retailers also do predictive modeling to help them better manage their replenishment.
IIoT in the Factory
Farther up in the supply chain, companies are using IIoT to improve manufacturing processes in several ways. One goal is to keep production machinery up and running.
Trained engineers might listen to machines, hear that something sounds wrong, and then take them off line to see if they need maintenance, says Mellor. But if you use sensors to monitor machines as they work, you can determine what constitutes effective operations and then do maintenance only when the machine strays from its normal parameters—when it vibrates at the wrong frequency, for example.
"It's a much more concrete way of thinking about maintenance issues," Mellor says. "And it increases the efficiency of the factory significantly, because if you don't need to take a machine down, then you keep making the things you're supposed to be making."
German manufacturer Bosch has tested several IIoT applications as part of a testbed program sponsored by the IIC. Bosch works with Cisco and TechM to test the use of sensors to track and trace power tools used in a Bosch plant in Homburg; with SAP to track forklifts operating in a Bosch plant in Tranreut, Bavaria; and on its own to track freight in Bavaria, according to Dirk Slama, vice president of business development at Bosch Software Innovations. The tests started in 2015 and are still in progress.
The goals of the Homburg test are to more easily find tools while they're in use on the factory floor, to make sure tools are used for the right functions at each location along the production line, and to monitor the tools' performance, according to a 2017 ICC report.
The tools are programmed to perform certain functions at certain workstations. If an employee tries to perform the wrong function, a sensor detects the problem, and the software shuts the tool down, the report says. Similarly, if a sensor detects a problem—say, if a screw starts to break while a worker is trying to tighten it—the system sounds an alarm, prompting the worker to unwind the screw.
Bosch uses these kinds of testbeds to evaluate new technologies and concepts. "If the testbed is successful, we merge the results into the existing product lines, or create new product lines," Slama says.
WIP It Up
GlobeRanger, a business unit of Fujitsu based in Richardson, Texas, uses RFID in a line of IIoT solutions for manufacturing and distribution. One solution monitors work-in-process (WIP) on the production floor, helping a company make both tactical and strategic adjustments to increase efficiency.
One GlobeRanger customer has been using the WIP solution since 2016 in a plant that makes aerospace components. The company attaches an RFID tag to a stack of documents—called a traveler—that accompanies each component as it moves from one workstation to the next. When the part arrives at a new station, workers put the traveler in a bin that contains an RFID reader.
"Our software is constantly polling that bin, to say—for example—that the part is here, it arrived at 3 p.m. Thursday, it was still here at 8:30 Friday, and then they started the next stage at 9 a.m.," says David South, vice president of solution management and channel sales at GlobeRanger.
Based on this data, GlobeRanger's software calculates how long each operation takes on each part, as well as how long each part sits in the queue when an operation is done, waiting to move to the next station. GlobeRanger displays the metrics in a dashboard, using red-yellow-green coding to show how production is running across the factory.
"If a particular process has gone red, you click on it and see that it has been backed up for hours or days," South says. That would prompt the manager to investigate the problem, perhaps learning that a new employee at that workstation needs extra training.
The solution can also mine accumulated data to look for patterns—for example, certain days when the work always moves more slowly than on others. "Then you can make strategic decisions for the future," South says.
Like GlobeRanger's factory floor solution, or Zebra's SmartPack loading solution, IIoT technology can provide a lot of value by collecting data from one point along the supply chain. But some experts note that IIoT is even more useful when you start integrating data from multiple locations or functions—that is, when you really start building an Internet of Everything.
A company that proposes an integrated IIoT initiative, rather than a standalone project focused on one function, will probably make a much more compelling business case, says Thomas Boykin, specialist leader, strategy and operations, supply chain and manufacturing operations at Deloitte Consulting in Atlanta.
For example, IIoT technologies can provide a holistic view of a global supply chain, where technologies for tracking, tracing, and sending alerts are active 24/7. "The IoT enables many of those technologies to be brought together, to maximize the value," Boykin says.
Consider a container sitting in a port in China, filled with components for a manufacturing process in the United States. When data from the container indicates that it hasn't been loaded onto a ship as scheduled, the logistics team might start to make alternative shipping arrangements, if they can.
But what about the production planners? They know which components the factory needs for which production runs. But if they don't get the same alerts as the logistics team, they won't know that some crucial parts are now due to arrive in six weeks instead of four. It would be useful to connect them, too, to the IIoT solution.
"To the degree that they know about that delay, they can make adjustments to their schedules almost in real time," Boykin says. For instance, they might move up production of a product that doesn't need the components that are running late. "The Internet of Things expands the information's value because you're connecting more players and more links in the supply chain," he adds.
As companies connect more links in their supply chains to the Industrial Internet of Things, perhaps one day it really will evolve into the Internet of Everything. Then maybe when your fitness tracker, detecting a slight imbalance in your gait, tells Siri or Alexa it's time to order a new pair of sneakers, the news will run all the way to a smart stitching machine in a factory halfway around the world.