Putting big data and the Internet of Things to work on the factory floor

Networking companies are focusing on the creation of systems for the neglected manufacturing sector

The much-hyped and fast-developing “Internet of Things” (IoT), in which billions of devices and objects share data across the net, is already transforming industries from financial services to health, transportation to energy. All those connected things are producing an ever-increasing flood of data, which, argue technologists and strategists, creates smarter and more focused businesses.

The actual industrial end of industries – the factories, shop floors and work sites – may be coming a bit later to the game, but the networked factory may well be the big data centrepiece of many organisations in the future.

When networking giant Cisco studied 61 cases of "Internet of Things" use by large businesses – 21 private-sector companies and 40 public-sector organisations – "the biggest area, the one that's screaming out to be focused on, is manufacturing," says Paul Taylor, strategic alliance manager at Cisco Systems.

The Chicago-based Taylor was one of several speakers recently at Connected Enterprise, an event focusing on the industrial Internet of Things, at Mondello Park, organised by Hanley Automation.

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Manufacturing might not initially seem like an obvious place for big data and the IoT, "but manufacturing generates more big data than any other part of the enterprise", noted speaker Dominic Molloy, marketing director of EMEA and managing director, UK and Ireland, at Rockwell Automation.

As businesses go mobile, a considerable amount of data is viewed over a smartphone or tablet, but, according to Molloy, much of it “is not relevant”. The major drive, and opportunity, now for companies such as Rockwell, Hanley and Cisco, is to develop systems that make more of that data relevant, and to the right people, when they need it.

“We need to contextualise the data and serve it up in a manner that makes it possible to positively impact the business,” says Molloy.

Online objects

According to Cisco, in 2010 more than seven billion objects were already online, and this is expected to expand to 50 billion by 2020. The more devices and objects, the more data. From its case studies, Cisco estimates the global economic value of the IoT and the data it produces to be $19 trillion.

Modern, highly automated factories are already saturated with things that could be networked – sensors, controllers, switches, machines – but which, for the most part, aren’t. Only 14 per cent of manufacturers in the US have their machines tied into the enterprise network, notes Molloy. That’s because, typically, the enterprise infrastructure has been kept separate from the automation infrastructure.

But as that changes, organisations will be able to view real-time data on manufacturing processes, compare performance across plants (or even, shifts within a plant), quickly scale production up or down, manage energy consumption remotely, even manage, troubleshoot and fix processes and plants remotely.

For highly regulated industries, such as pharmaceuticals, where processes must be carefully monitored, tracked and recorded, networked data should make regulatory compliance easier, he says.

Joe McGill, commercial engineer at Rockwell Automation, believes that there are some good reasons for automating process reports. “When people enter data manually, the temptation is to make it look slightly better than it is,” he says. The end result is an inaccurate picture of processes that could hamper decision-making.

Speaking after his talk at Connected Enterprise, McGill noted that pharmaceuticals and the medical-device sector have been leading the conversion to networked, automated manufacturing, in part as a way to streamline production and reduce costs. “Before 2008, if they needed more production, they’d just buy another facility,” he says. “Now capital investment is harder, and they’re using data to get that productivity.”

Though moving to a networked factory requires careful thought and progressive planning stages, McGill says many businesses “start really small. We see lots of customers just starting with a single process or machine”.

Often, the main driver is maintenance, he says: “Maintenance is under a lot of pressure to increase uptime.” But senior management can also see immediate advantages to automated data. “At Monday-morning management meetings, they’re often looking at data that’s a week or two old.”

Rockwell and Cisco have a formal partnership to offer an integrated industrial service, supporting manufacturing clients, which evolved from an initial collaboration eight years ago on a networked switch, said Paul Taylor in a recent interview. “But we realised the bigger picture is the convergence of the enterprise and the factory floor.”

Over a year, Cisco worked out a blueprint of how that convergence could be done. “That resulted in a shared vision, architecture and product set,” said Taylor. “We then began to consider what comes next – and the Internet of Things began to come in to it.”

Harnessing data on the fly makes industries in fast-moving or highly complex manufacturing sectors able to work more efficiently, he added. But it also saves costs when companies expand into distant manufacturing locations such as China. “Are you really going to ship expertise halfway around the world when you can access the site remotely on a device, anywhere?”

Making data useful

Extracting data during the manufacturing process and implementing it in useful ways was definitely on the minds of those at Connected Enterprise. “All manufacturing plants would be into industrial automation,” says Paul McGreal, engineering manager at multinational medical device company

Boston Scientific

in Galway. “To survive in Ireland, you have to automate and innovate. But now we want to know how to get data from these machines.”

Already he can remotely access data from the manufacturing floor and see how a particular machine is working, which means he doesn’t have to be at his plant site. “Having the equipment connected to the internet, I can easily connect from home, do diagnostics, and fix it,” he says. “And I don’t have to have five or 10 engineers in there any more. I can base them remotely, to cover a couple of sites.”

He says his company already has some expertise in the area, “but the marriage between Rockwell and Cisco will give us new instruments and equipment that makes this much more powerful”.

For Henry Bradshaw, equipment and controls engineer with Dublin pharmaceutical manufacturer Forest Laboratories, now part of the Actavis pharma group, the conference was a chance to listen to the latest technological developments in the area, and talk to vendors. "We have a manufacturing plant, and an awful lot of the equipment is older," he says. That represents an opportunity to upgrade into a more networked site. Manufacturing is shifting away from "being a very standalone piece of equipment, to something more connected to the company's IT".

All organisations need to be more efficient and make better business decisions, especially as markets become more global, he says, and big data could help that happen.

“We’re already running trials, with the idea of putting together a cost plan,” Bradshaw adds. “You can run smarter and faster. You go from islands of automation to a more harmonised process.”