The industrial internet of things (IIOT) is on the minds of many supply chain management professionals. The potential benefits are just too good to ignore, and companies large and small are feeling a true sense of urgency as competition and consumers continue to demand heightened efficiency and responsiveness from supply chains.
The IIOT is composed of a proliferation of connected sensors and smart devices that provide new levels of visibility and control across a plant or an entire supply chain. Rather than launching a work order or shipping a product that essentially falls into a black hole until completed or delivered, IIOT technology offers real-time tracking of location, status, conditions, measurements and more — enabling early detection of deviations; accurate delivery projections; and a wealth of data for analysis, product and process improvement, and tighter control of costs and overall business performance.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the IIOT is that sensors and devices are surprisingly affordable, thanks to high demand and high-volume production in the consumer space. For example, the typical smartphone has up to a dozen or more sensors, including two cameras, accelerometers, or a GPS chip. This compact and inexpensive technology is being adapted for the IIOT and attached to products, cartons, pallets, trucks, containers and more.
With such capable and inexpensive tools, why can’t we just get IIOT tools out there and start reaping the benefits? Unfortunately, there are several complications to be resolved.
First, as with any new technology, various pieces of the ecosystem are being developed by numerous companies. This means that there are many different and incompatible approaches to formatting, communication protocols, encoding schemes and the like. This lack of standards makes it challenging to piece together a network that takes full advantage of the wide range of resources available. Users therefore must pick and stick with a supplier in order to avoid building endless converters, adaptors and interfaces. Standards will evolve and the industry will consolidate, but we are not there yet.
IIOT communications use existing networks — mainly the internet and cellular technology — and thus are subject to security concerns such as unauthorized access, malware, viruses and other types of interference. Adding and maintaining security is a key focus of device makers and network developers, so, again, this issue will be resolved eventually.
These two roadblocks notwithstanding, building and maintaining a functioning IIOT network is not a trivial undertaking. A smaller company certainly can deploy a modest number of sensors and manage a simple IIOT network with off-the-shelf tools, but a fully integrated and enabled plant or supply chain is much more complex.
Furthermore, to be truly effective, IIOT data must be integrated with management systems. Developers of these solutions — enterprise resources planning tools, in particular — have not yet incorporated the exploitation of IIOT data into their systems’ functionality.
And speaking of data, IIOT produces a lot of it. The good news is that there are excellent data visualization and analytics technologies available. The newer versions of these applications are focused on creating an experience that will enable users to exploit the information without the need for a data scientist or database specialist looking over their shoulder or doing the analysis for them.
It is clear that the IIOT has much to offer, but it is not at the state of maturity that would allow an organization to simply drop it into place and start reaping the benefits. However, forward-thinking business leaders cannot afford to wait. No doubt, competitors are already adopting the technology and gaining valuable visibility, flexibility and control. Supply chain management professionals must carefully watch the evolution, develop plans for full implementation across their plants and supply chains, identify specific needs and benefits, and experiment with prototypes and limited explorations. These will be the steps that make the IIOT a reality.
Dave Turbide, CFPIM, CIRM, CSCP, CMfgE, is a New Hampshire-based independent consultant and freelance writer and president of the APICS Granite State Chapter. He also is a Certified in Production and Inventory Management and Certified Supply Chain Professional master instructor and The Fresh Connection trainer. Turbide may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.