We assemble a group of industry experts to explain how the Industrial Internet of Things is impacting the manufacturing sector and MRO procurement

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Industry 4.0, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) – whichever name you use to describe use of digital connectivity in industry, experts all seem to believe that massive changes are on their way for manufacturers in the UK.
 
Research by EEF, the Manufacturers’ Organisation, showed that 96% of manufacturers believe 4IR will be about connectivity and communication and 99% felt it was about getting actionable insights from data.[1]
 
“Most manufacturers are aware 4IR is happening and that they need to do something about it. But what they are actually doing about it varies widely,” says Martin Strutt, Region Director at EEF. “We’ve divided manufacturers’ adoption into three phases – conception, evolution and revolution. People in the conception phase are simply trying to work out what it is and what it might mean for their business.
 
“Those in the evolution phase are starting to connect processes and making improvements to the way their business operates,” he adds. “Finally, you have a small group of organisations that are right at the forefront of the revolution. They have embraced the technology and are investing heavily in it and as a result are finding new ways of doing business and earning money.”
 
So what can IIoT offer manufacturers and why is so much being written about it? “IIoT technology itself is just technology,” says Richard Jeffers, Technical Director for Northern Europe at RS Components. “It is how and where we apply and integrate it with other capabilities that will make the compelling difference.
"Look for a problem you’ve traditionally been unable to solve, then see if IIoT can break the impasse"Richard Jeffers, Technical Director for Northern Europe, RS
“Companies that get this right will be able to significantly improve a variety of aspects of their business from the actual manufacturing process to maintenance, repair and operations (MRO). To really get value from these emerging technologies look for a problem you’ve traditionally been unable to solve, then see if IIoT can break the impasse. These technologies can be harnessed to give you a previously unachievable solution” he adds.
 
Aerospace and defence
The idea of a gradual approach to IIoT is something that Sameer Savani, Technology Adviser at the aerospace and defence industry’s trade body, ADS Group, agrees with. “We recommend companies, particularly those without the ability to spend huge amounts of capital on new equipment, take a ‘test and learn’ approach,” he explains. “However, the challenge with this is to also have a plan for how you scale up if you find your tests are successful – the key is to think big, start small and scale fast.”
"The challenge with IIoT is to also have a plan for how you scale up if you find initial tests are successful – the key is to think big, start small and scale fast"Sameer Savani, Technology Adviser, ADS Group
The aerospace sector is an area of manufacturing that has put most of its IIoT investment into data, says Martin Strutt. “Aerospace and defence companies have focused on big data collection from the manufacturing process,” he says. “These companies want to look at how they can improve efficiency in manufacturing through new working processes (using collaborative robots, for example) and monitor the life of components.”
 
Savani agrees about the importance of data, but feels that the industry has some way to go to achieve the full potential of IIoT. “I believe that the sector is pretty near the cutting edge of this technology, or at least several companies are, but no companies have the perfect operation where everything is working in harmony,” he says. “More and more data is now available to both the manufacturing and operations (MRO) side of the sector and the ability to collect data and analyse that it is increasing all the time.
 
“The ideal scenario is that as you collect ever more data it is shared with multiple stakeholders across the business, from designers and engineers through to operators and procurement,” he says. “This effectively gives you a closed feedback loop and should improve the business as a whole. This is the nirvana that organisations are looking for.”
 
Savani believes that the very nature of the products that aerospace and defence companies create and the customers that they serve is delaying innovation.
 
“One of the biggest challenges in our sector is that the lifecycle of new products is relatively slow compared to faster sectors such as consumer goods, which can hinder changes in processes,” says Savani. “In addition, the ability of companies to implement change will vary greatly from one organisation to another – the biggest companies have the money to invest in new technology, and can take a long-term strategic view, but it can be hard to push through new processes across the company.
 
“Smaller firms may worry about the investment needed to introduce new technology, but they can be more agile and adapt to change quicker.”
 
OEMs
OEMs, many of which serve the automotive industry, face similar challenges as does the aerospace sector, according to Nick Harrison, Partner, Management Consulting, KPMG. “Automotive suffers from the relatively long lifecycle of the products,” he says. “Although not long as aerospace and defence products, automotive still tends to work to a seven-year car lifecycle, which tends to inhibit the adoption of new ways of working – which IIoT could bring.”
 
Harrison is of the opinion, that despite the prominence of Industry 4.0 in Germany, home of many of the world’s automotive giants, OEMs have not developed IIoT technology as much as they could have. “I’ve worked with OEMs in the UK and in Europe and I think they’re still way behind where you would expect them to be in terms of IIoT,” he says. “This is because they’ve underinvested in technology and instead have created bespoke applications in their operations to deal with their complex supply chain and complex customer base.
 
“One of my clients has 1,500 applications in just one manufacturing plant and the sheer complexity of replacing all of these with a consolidated, connected solution is massively off-putting for the business.”
 
Martin Strutt believes that where OEMS have started to gain some benefits from IIoT is through improvements to their supply chain. “For OEMs in the automotive sector particularly, the big focus in terms of IIoT will be their supply chain,” he explains. “Automotive companies want to have better linkage with tier one suppliers so that they can monitor production in their suppliers’ factories, to know about any delays, and to introduce automatic electronic ordering from one robotic assembly cell to a supplier’s robotic assembly cell.”
 
Process industries
Free from the constraints of long-lifecycle products, manufacturers in the process industry (producing paper, packaging, plastics) are in a strong position, according to Nick Harrison, to take advantage of IIoT.
 
“Process industries have a real opportunity to forge ahead with IIoT and set an example for other sectors,” he states. “In packaging, for example, the number of raw materials that go into each product is low – however, with the overall process there are opportunities to make significant, rapid changes around things like RPA (Robotic Process Automation), digital labour, artificial intelligence and data analytics that will dramatically improve your operation, costs and overall margins.
 
“I have a client in the packaging industry that has completely changed its business model as a result of IIoT,” he adds. “This company offers a managed service for clients where they carry out detailed data analysis on the manufacturing process and make recommendations for improvements back to the customer – this data helps customers forecast more accurately and boost productivity.”
 
The future

For some organisations there may be similar moves to entirely new business models, while for others the process will be gradual. “I’m often asked ‘how can we do Industry 4.0?’ says Jeffers. “There is still a lot of confusion about what it is and to get started you need to be able to answer a few fundamental questions:

  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • What is the value to the organisation of solving that problem / is it worth solving the problem?
  • How are you going to get the data?
  • How are you going to manage the data? Ie what analytics are you going to do at the edge? What are you going to send to the cloud and what are you going to do with it once it gets there?
It’s clear that all of the experts are in broad agreement – while IIoT adoption will not happen uniformly across manufacturing and its various sub-sectors, it is going to happen. The next five to ten years are likely to see significant changes across the industry.
 
“I think IIoT will see rapid, ‘hockey stick’-style growth in the short to mid-term,” says Harrison. “The reason for that is simply that more and more manufacturers across all sectors are getting their heads around the technology and realising just how much the technology could improve their business.”