The American manufacturing industry has made significant short-term adjustments to stay operational in spite of Covid-19. Since personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages and state quarantine orders began in March, we’ve seen incredible stories of small businesses and manufacturers retooling to produce critical supplies and make an impact in the coronavirus fight.
For many manufacturers, however, the pivot is less dramatic and more future-focused. As manufacturers revisit ideas to meet radically different consumer demands and shopping habits, many of their strategies are in line with industrial internet of things (IIoT) trends that will propel the manufacturing industry into a more agile future.
Smart businesses have accelerated plans or increased investments in IIoT as a result of the pandemic. While hard data on spending is difficult to find, top execs like Microsoft’s VP of IoT and Mixed Reality Sales Rodney Clark recently put it like this:
“The time that I spend right now is in implementations for Covid-initiated things like monitoring and detection, things like business automation, social and workplace engagement interaction projects that probably would have taken 18 months to do formal [proof of concepts], test and deploy — we’ve deployed in a matter of two or three weeks. That’s new for us.”
Manufacturers are adopting IIoT solutions — and fast. If we aren’t paying attention, we’re bound to miss valuable lessons about what it means when IIoT hits critical mass.
Three IIoT trends with long-term potential
IIoT adoption now will set the pace and trends for the technology’s evolution over time.
As early IoT applications and experiments begin to bear fruit for individual businesses, let’s examine how broader applications may benefit the entire industry.
Doubling down on automation
Covid-19 revealed the vulnerability of the manufacturing workforce in a whole new way. As a result, manufacturers are exploring new ways of automating processes that take the manual load off of employees. Don’t get this confused — workers aren’t being replaced in this process. Instead, they are receiving tools that help them work more efficiently and gaining the ability to re-focus on different tasks.
Future application: In the future, IIoT enabled factories and plants will dynamically adapt to workforce fluctuations. If a pandemic or natural disaster occurs in the future, manufacturers that have automated parts of their operations can schedule “machine only” shifts or alter workflows so workers can accomplish all their tasks in staggered shifts to avoid contact with one another.
Bringing legacy machines online
Machines, presses, lines, conveyors and bins were brought online through sensors and other IoT enabled devices during the pandemic. This equipment was digitally dormant — it was doing its job, but the data about how it was doing it was trapped locally or didn’t exist at all. Now, floor managers have the ability to log in remotely and view the status of an entire operation, and make real-time decisions and changes to the operation.
Future application: Bringing legacy machines online creates a bevy of new data. The next evolution of IIoT will involve investments in data science, engineering and robust business intelligence tools to analyze it. One possible application? Predictive maintenance that allows shop owners to gain insight into machine consumables and component wear — allowing them to get ahead of maintenance and avoid downtime.
Looking beyond the physical operation
IIoT applications go beyond just improving the physical output for manufacturers. By connecting equipment to ERPs and other systems, manufacturers are automating processes like order management, fulfillment and invoicing, allowing them to be far more agile.
Future application: The next iteration of IIoT’s influence on manufacturing may not be as easy to measure, but it is a major shift. Until now, much of manufacturing has been based on intuition, experience and strong relationships with customers. While that remains true in the future, better analytics and assistive AI will take care of the admin so sales and customer service can capture a deeper understanding of customers.
The short-term IIoT investments manufacturers have made to respond to Covid-19 hint at a more efficient, agile future for the industry. If early success is any indication, these pivots are undoubtedly permanent.