How The IIoT Is Transforming Plant Floor Management

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IIoT is connecting every stage of the manufacturing process and making plant floors infinitely more complex than before.

By Tan Aik Jin, Manufacturing Solutions Lead, Zebra Technologies Asia Pacific.

The rapid adoption of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is dramatically transforming the global manufacturing industry. This is notable in the Asia Pacific region, with a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report showing that 32 percent of manufacturers in the region are planning to have established mature digital ecosystems in the next five years, a significantly higher figure than that of 24 percent for the Americas and 15 percent for EMEA.

IIoT is connecting every stage of the manufacturing process, including end-to-end supply chain management, changing warehouse and factory operations, and making plant floors infinitely more complex than before. Plant floor management now requires the knowledge, agility and visibility to track-trace and optimise every process, asset and resource with pinpoint, end-to-end accuracy, and manufacturers are turning to technology to gain a performance edge in handling vast amounts of necessary information and reduce costs.

This starts with a new way of looking at operations management for manufacturing CTOs: interpreting all factory and warehouse assets – the inventory, machinery, vehicles, workers and end products – as sources of data for real-time analysis. In essence, this means extending their field of vision both up stream to the customer and downstream through the supply chain. Once assets in these environments become IIoT- enabled, they offer insights and visibility that transform the warehouse from simply a place of storage into an active business differentiator.

Defining The IIot

IIoT incorporates machine learning and big data technology, harnessing the sensor data, machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and automation technologies that have existed in industrial settings for years. The driving philosophy behind the IIoT is that smart machines are better than humans at accurately, consistently capturing and communicating data. This data can enable companies to pick up on inefficiencies and problems sooner, saving time and money and supporting business intelligence efforts.

In manufacturing, specifically, IIoT holds great potential for quality control, managing product variety, supply chain traceability and overall supply chain efficiency. Taking this a step further and integrating the Human to Machine Interface (HMI) enables man and machine to work harmoniously.

IIot Shakes Up Plant Floors

Bringing IoT into a warehouse and factory means deploying technology through connected devices, such as enterprise mobile computers, barcode scanners, radio-frequency identification (RFID) readers, wearables, sensors, and aisle and shelf beacons. By enabling both the human and machine to scan in activity and asset as they work, it helps the on-site workforce be more productive, streamlining working processes and identifying the opportunities for workflow improvements.

A Zebra study found that fully-connected factories and workforces are expected to triple to 46 percent by 2022 as manufacturers look for technological solutions to improve accuracy and faster delivery while simultaneously managing multiple warehouses and factories. These house even larger numbers of stock keeping units (SKUs) due to the level of customisation and personalisation demanded by the consumer. This in turn is driving the need for visibility to extend across the supply chain and manufacturing in one transparent picture.

Once assets have a digital voice and become IoT-enabled, a wealth of intelligence is ready and waiting to be processed and turned into insight that can help your operations become more efficient. To respond to such information quickly, manufacturers will need a smart analytics application alongside their Manufacturing Execution System (MES). Until now, there have always been inefficiencies buried in supply chains just waiting to be found. We couldn’t see them or establish a causal link to problems that occurred due to fluctuations in demand. A tool that analyses data in real-time enables manufacturers to pinpoint where these inefficiencies lie and, therefore, provides actionable insights to future proof the supply chain.

More data means more opportunities for gathering performance insights, and this is why IIoT is quickly becoming a critical aspect of doing business. For example, some of our customers say their delivery vehicles typically are loaded to only 70 percent capacity, meaning 30 percent of every vehicle trailer is empty air. Analytics tools that scan the trailers to identify empty spaces can increase this capacity to 85 percent or more, saving millions for any large logistics operator.

Keeping Up With Just In Time Shipments

Increasingly, manufacturers of finished goods are focusing on keeping less component level and sub-assembly materials on hand, avoiding associated storage costs and depending more on suppliers to provide components on-demand. Industry 4.0 brings with it a move toward Just in Time (JIT) shipments in which suppliers anticipate the needs of manufacturers and deliver materials when needed to meet production cycle requirements. Methodologies such as Kanban or eKanban are joining up the supply chain to production needs and utilising technology to execute effectively.

To meet the needs of customers who require JIT notification of shipments, companies should deploy best-of-breed MES that track and document the transformation of raw materials into finished goods. Track and trace through production assures consumption and bottlenecks are visible, when joined up with the WMS this enables a dynamic and intuitive on-demand supply chain.

Visibility Through RFID

For your loading operations to be efficient, businesses require high-performance wireless networks to provide an always-on connection. Smart sensors, such as RFID tags, GS-1 compliant barcodes and location technology will make it easier to automate the collection of data and to monitor the status of goods and find items. All of this must be underpinned by a separate back-office system which simplifies data analysis to support better decisions and offers improved, real-time visibility of the stock position.

A good warehouse management system (WMS) tracks volumetric efficiency, load rate and when a load is nearing completion. Drivers can be alerted in advance when a trailer is about to be closed out, resulting in lower dwell time and freeing up the dock so a new load can begin, as well as allowing dock managers to reallocate assets and for workers to accommodate last minute changes and peak surges.

The use of RFID has been an interesting topic for warehouse logistics for a long time. Today, the technology is mature and is used across many businesses in closed loop solutions. RFID smart tags store significantly more information than barcodes and are an effective means against counterfeiting. That is why industries with expensive products such as textiles or luxury goods rely on them to track stock.

The Big Picture

So, what’s in store for plant floors in the future? Smart factories, underpinned by IIoT, will continue to be the lifeblood of Industry 4.0. This is where real-time communication between the supply chain and the production line will drive automation and digitisation. Making this possible are humans and machines that can share data in real time to deliver better quality goods, unprecedented visibility and impressive cost efficiencies.

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