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The internet of things (IoT) is much more than the next step in consumer technologies — it also represents a significant leap forward for industries of all kinds.

Manufacturing is already — and will continue to be — a field almost uniquely suited to applying IoT technology. In fact, there's almost no part of the process that won't be touched in some way by this ever-expanding web of smart and interconnected sensors, computers and machines. No matter how large or small your operation is, it's increasingly difficult to understate the potential value of adding intelligence and oversight to your processes using the internet of things.

Here are four ways IoT is revolutionizing the field of manufacturing.

A Greater Degree of Competitiveness

According to a report published by Verizon in 2016, an overwhelming majority of manufacturing managers already consider IoT technology a critical competitive advantage. It's hard to believe that such a sea change happened practically overnight, but not quite so much when you realize what's at stake.

Suffice it to say, the IoT represents a bundle of industrial innovations that have been a long time coming. Most of the competitive advantages cited by the Verizon report have to do with parts of the manufacturing and business processes that required guesswork or drew from incomplete data sets. We're talking things like altering business processes based on current demand and future trends, optimizing longstanding workflows and responding to unforeseen events.

Technology powered by the IoT can make manufacturing companies more competitive by, among other things, granting some autonomy and automation to back-end processes that inform the rest of your employee processes and workflows. This type of automation could, for example, automatically flag product for shipment to another location based on current levels or even trip a slowdown on one production line to pivot to another product if future demand isn't expected to be there.

The result is a leaner business that can run circles around your more flat-footed competition, who might've been slow to adopt modern technologies. 

A Demystified Supply Chain

Gathering useful insights into the supply chain — that all-important web of manufacturers, shippers and vendors that makes modern production and order fulfillment possible — has been one of the most significant advantages of applying the IoT.

Of course, oversight into vendor and shipper processes is nothing new — but accessing it and making decisions in real-time is a relatively new innovation courtesy of the IoT. These days, every plant location and every party responsible for assembling or moving finished or in-progress merchandise enjoys a higher degree of transparency and collaboration thanks to remote monitoring technology, sensors along material handling paths and assembly lines, and more.

Perhaps most importantly, the availability of granular data at each stage lets each party know exactly what inventory levels look like, all the way up and down the supply chain. This is a significant innovation and a huge stride toward true lean and just-in-time manufacturing, not to mention seamless collaboration. Neither wasteful production methods nor products sitting idle that are needed elsewhere are long for this world, and it's all thanks to the IoT.

Automated Maintenance and Unsafe Operation Alerts

Even the very machines manufacturers use to fabricate and assemble new products are getting smarter thanks to the internet of things. Low-cost sensors are easier than ever for facilities to deploy on their critical machines and equipment, which can make the time and labor associated with ongoing maintenance far easier to manage.

Sensors on manufacturing and product handling equipment provide real-time alerts and analysis concerning the condition of the machine and its many moving parts. These sensors can also take the guesswork and scheduling out of regular equipment maintenance by sending an alert to the appropriate parties at regular intervals — or whenever the machine's onboard self-diagnostic tools detect an impending failure or fault.

The implications for manufacturing are enormous since no two organizations work under the same conditions and with the same equipment. IoT-powered condition-based alerts help facilities maintain the health of their machines, no matter where in the world they're located and no matter what the temperature and humidity are doing. Some devices are more finicky than others when it comes to environmental conditions, making no-hassle maintenance a considerable advantage.

Improved Safety Oversight

Before the industrial internet of things, key performance indicators for employee safety and work environment were commonly spread across several systems, including paper-based ones. This made it difficult for plant managers to get a good, top-down sense of where dangerous processes existed or what types of simple process changes might result in improvements.

The internet of things makes it possible to gather data concerning work accidents and near-misses, property damage, employee injury rates by process and more. It's quite common — and potentially even required — for modern business to track some of these data points as for various compliance purposes. However, it's less common to assemble them in one place and use modern digital technologies to draw actionable conclusions, isolate consistent trouble areas and drill down to causes.

Wearables are another safety-minded application of the IoT. Helmets and wristbands are being eyed as possible future locations for health-related sensors to keep track of workers' physical locations, temperatures, heart rates and more — all in service of rotating employees more regularly, keeping bodily stresses to a minimum and bolstering organizational safety as a whole.

Tomorrow's Technology Today

It's likely that the future will see even more IoT innovations for manufacturing. For right now, these four major improvement areas represent many opportunities for the modern business to revolutionize what they do and how they do it.

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Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance technical writer and blogger. She discusses the latest news in science and technology on her blog, Schooled By Science. When she isn't writing, Megan enjoys exploring the city with her friends.

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