The Internet of Things and the Future of the Manufacturing Industry

You get on the scale in the morning, and the data instantly syncs to your fitness app to show your weight-loss progress. At work, you worry that you left the back door open, so you check your dog's GPS location through his collar's app and tell him over the two-way audio feature that you'll be home soon. When you stop at the store on the way home, you can't remember for the life of you if you have milk, so you text your Smart Fridge to find out. Always responsive and courteous, your fridge texts back that you have plenty.

While these scenarios might sound like a scene from The Jetsons, they are all very real examples of the awe-inspiring power of the Internet of Things (IoT). Perhaps just like "big data" or "going green," IoT is something you've heard batted around before and never gave much thought. But the Internet of Things is so much more than the buzzword du jour.

In layman's terms, IoT refers to an environment that collects information from objects, people, or animals equipped with devices or sensors, and the applications that enable users to assess that data. Those applications can be anything from social media apps to sophisticated manufacturing systems. IoT is one of the few technological concepts whose utility may actually overshadow its hype. Its business potential alone is boundless, and, as you'll find out, nowhere is that more evident than in the manufacturing industry.

Driving Output and Efficiency

Rolls baking in an oven

Image via Flickr by MrGuilt

IoT can revolutionize a manufacturing plant's information infrastructure, allowing machines to communicate with employees and other machines in an unprecedented way. The communication among machines gives factory workers and managers access to a heretofore unheard-of amount of historical and real-time performance data.

For example, King's Hawaiian roll company installed an IoT-based integrated architecture manufacturing system in a new plant in 2011. The system allowed the company to remotely monitor production in the Georgia plant from California. Managers could access the system's data and review its performance from any place with an Internet connection. Likewise, engineers could remotely access, diagnose, and service the plant's machines through the system's servers.

The results were astounding. The IoT technologies enabled King's to produce 180,000 more pounds of bread every day, twice its previous capacity. The system also allowed the company to make the new plant operational in a matter of weeks rather than months. In fact, the new plant opened a week ahead of schedule thanks to the added efficiency of the IoT system.

Cleaner, More Affordable Manufacturing

IoT paves the way for smart-grid technology, which relies on sensors, meters, and other digital devices to manage energy usage and incorporate alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar power. Automating environmental controls will have a substantial impact on the bottom line, reducing waste and avoiding peak-demand charges. According to General Electric, improving energy efficiency by just five percent in a small power plant producing 15MW can reduce energy costs by $200,000 annually. The earth emerges a winner as well -- IoT can help reduce emissions by facilitating the transition to renewable energy sources.

Reduced Labor and Service Costs

Workers who specialize in the service or repair of manufacturing equipment may see employment opportunities diminish as IoT continues to catch on. Automating manufacturing processes allows engineers to see and deal with problems remotely and in real time. The mobile technology of IoT eliminates the costly gap between when a manufacturing problem occurs and when it is addressed.

For example, if managers spot a quality control issue in the production line, they can remotely shut down production before the line creates more defective products. The result is more efficient, condition-based maintenance that reduces waste and attenuates the need for labor and service calls.

Automation and Job Creation

The wave of automation spurred by IoT technology has implications for both current and aspiring manufacturing workers. For current workers, IoT has struck fear in the hearts of millions of laborers. Manufacturing workers are some of the most susceptible to automation-induced obsolescence due to the repetitive, routine nature of their job tasks. While IoT can and will automate a number of jobs performed by humans, experts still predict that IoT will increase job opportunities.

Specifically, IoT can free up the time of manufacturing workers so they can devote more of their efforts to R&D, skills that simply can't be automated. In this way, IoT is changing the definition of a manufacturing career. The industry will soon demand more creativity and technical savvy from its employees than ever.

For job seekers considering a career in manufacturing, several trends may work in your favor. For one, IoT has shifted the industry's emphasis to engineering and science, requiring a workforce that is highly technically sophisticated. Workers who know how to develop, manage, monitor, and repair IoT-based systems to sustain automation will be in high demand.

Next-Shoring: The Result of a Tech-Centered Workforce

Another consequence of an increasingly technical manufacturing labor force is the end of outsourcing abroad. Complex, IoT-based supply chains equipped with thousands of sensors that produce unrelenting streams of data require workers that can manage sophisticated operations. Companies have realized that they can find these kinds of workers more efficiently by shifting operations closer to the products' markets.

This practice, known as next-shoring, allows companies to minimize inventories, reduce delivery times, and expedite restocking. Next-shoring bodes well for current and aspiring manufacturing workers, as the largest market in the world for most products is the United States. Tech-savvy laborers will have no trouble finding work as the jobs previously reserved for overseas workers return stateside.

The Internet of Things is far more than a fleeting phenomenon or technophile jargon. IoT connects people, things, and data in a way the world has never experienced. With IoT, businesses have the ability to monitor just about anything in real time, thereby increasing productivity, output, and efficiency simultaneously. For manufacturing employment, IoT will mean more job opportunities for those skilled in handling these technical systems and in research and development.

Contributed to by Kim Hale

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