Monitoring equipment performance in the field through sensor technology in the IoT
For manufacturers, this IoT opportunity represents tremendous revenue potential in a variety of ways.
The Internet of Things (IoT) has moved beyond a developing trend and is now a way to innovate technology further, allowing companies and their customers to begin to reap IoT’s growing list of benefits. Much of the associated benefit derived from the IoT is related to and marketed towards us, as consumers. Collecting data through sensors helps users measure and monitor a host of valuable data, from health statistics to home devices. This could be through artificial intelligence in our personal digital assistants, or through smartwatches or fitness trackers or even the use of drones and VR (virtual reality) for personal entertainment. It is estimated that one in every five U.S. homes will buy at least one smart home device within a year, pushing sales of these devices from 20 million in 2014 to over 35 million this year, according to a survey released by the Consumer Technology Association.
For manufacturers, this IoT opportunity represents tremendous revenue potential in a variety of ways. In product development, connected sensors on product componentry can gather and deliver real-time information about the performance of the product or the individual components and materials. From aircraft to automotive engines to sensitive medical equipment, for instance, sensors on parts as they go through their design and development evolution delivers critical data related to performance, safety, durability and more.
This monitoring and collection of data doesn’t stop once the product leaves the manufacturer’s facility. Embedded sensors and control mechanisms can help spot potential issues in design, components and materials and ultimately allow manufacturers the ability to better understand how customers are utilizing their products. Manufacturers of refrigeration cases, for instance, might not have any idea how their equipment performs in the field until a support call comes in or until a request under a warranty occurs. How often have you visited your local grocery only to find too much ice covering the product and being dissatisfied with what you are purchasing? The problem is that unless there are monitoring sensors within the case, neither the manufacturer nor the store manager has any idea that something is out of whack within the equipment. Well, not until someone complains! Wouldn’t it be nice for the manufacturer to be able to visualize and assess performance of the cooler equipment prior to the product failure or shrinkage?
Appliance manufacturers have the same issue where they have little to no visibility into how their appliances perform once they are installed in someone’s house or commercial property. Wouldn’t it be nice if appliance companies had real-time diagnostics on their appliances? Information about the temperature of the appliance, the fan run times and the energy consumption could all be reported via the internet back to the manufacturer. Another application for the IoT is for vending machines. Cloud connectivity and sensor technology can team up to help enable vending machine operators to diagnose and repair systems remotely, thereby reducing machine downtime and on-site maintenance costs. Vending machines can also send real-time updates like supply and operating status, which can be used to optimize delivery schedules and logistics as well as improve inventory tracking and control.
Another aspect to this vertical is not only about the performance of equipment, but also the location of critical assets. The use cases for this combination of sensors and IoT are varied. Theft of construction equipment is a major issue. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, as much as $1 billion worth of construction tools and equipment is stolen each year and 90% of this amount is taken from work sites. Utilizing RFID tags or sensors that provide GPS coordinates make it easy to, in real time, track not only the operation of this equipment, but its location.
Based on the information they receive and analyze, manufacturers could help customers and clients avoid breakdowns and performance problems. These companies could then also utilize the data collected for their design-in engineering processes by revising the design of products and components to achieve more durable and higher-performing technology. Furthermore, no longer would teams of people have to travel to visit production sites to record their findings manually. Data from the IoT could draw immediate attention, followed by corrective action, such as repair, maintenance or replacement.
Manufacturers of really any type of equipment can leverage the IoT in nearly all stages of the manufacturing process. Data on how resources are utilized within the facility can help to optimize manufacturing production schedules and allow companies to better capitalize on opportunities for savings or plant improvements. Using sensors to collect data can also help companies to benchmark their equipment once it leaves their facility. They can log and compare data from equipment in different locations or where equipment is placed in different operating environments and see how they perform comparatively. This process could unearth hidden operational inefficiencies that would otherwise go undetected until a fatal failure occurs. Lastly, manufacturers could utilize and analyze the data they receive to offer more appropriate preventative maintenance and warranty programs. Instead of only getting calls when things go wrong, sensor data could help manufacturers get alerts for service when something is needed, based on the performance of the equipment going out of the prescribed parameters for optimal performance.
This aspect of IoT and manufacturing is often referred to as remote condition monitoring (RCM). RCM is one of a number of basic services that can have a fundamentally positive impact on customer service quality. The ability to access product status information in real time is invaluable for support services, especially because it makes for much more efficient root cause analysis and solution development. The obvious next step becomes predictive maintenance where the use of sensors for things like thermal imaging, vibration analysis, sonic and ultrasonic analysis and emissions allow for the detection of problems before they even occur. For companies making end consumer products, the advent of the IoT provides a great way to improve customer service and drive stronger sales revenue as well. Having more touch points with the end customer means a better all-around customer experience and then aftermarket services take the form of value-added services, which can be IoT based.
Although the promise of IoT is strong, there are still challenges that exist. One of the primary concerns is related to security and privacy. When left unsecure, connected devices that are more continuously transmitting can open doors to attacks, endangering not only the consumer but also the companies utilizing the IoT on their assembly lines.
Another topic of discussion, which is prevalent across many sensor technologies, is standardization. OEMs looking to deploy innovative, IoT solutions need to navigate an ever-growing list of connected technology to determine which solutions are compliant and which are best for integration into their ecosystem. This is no easy feat. One of the other concerns, which is a bit more nebulous, is to determine how to effectively use the data provided. Collecting copious amounts of data is not challenging, the magic lies in what that data means to not only the user, but even more importantly, to the manufacturer.
We can see there are tremendous possibilities for manufacturers to take advantage of sensors to extract information from the field. And with the growth of the IoT—now and in the long-term—it’s ever more vital for these interconnected devices and equipment to share performance data. While there are a few albeit addressable concerns, by taking a smart approach, manufacturers can successfully track performance—leading to better product performance. And in the long run, this benefits everyone.