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Live Data Is Improving Efficiency and Productivity on the Shop Floor, but There Are Challenges

Factory equipment is becoming increasingly Internet-enabled (part of the much referenced “Internet of Things” or “IoT”), and digital technology is helping engineers improve turnaround and uptime, while giving companies more tools to improve delivery time forecasting and saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in production waste, loss productivity and energy.

Sensors that automatically collect and report data are being attached to systems at nearly every step of the manufacturing process and within support systems throughout the factory today. Production machines, forklifts, HVAC systems, conveyors—any piece of equipment with such devices as heaters, chillers, pumps, pressure vessels or throughput sensors—are able to monitor and communicate temperature, throughput, flow rates, pressures, energy consumption and other critical parameters, and in many situations address issues automatically, and much more quickly and accurately than ever before.

“Equipment with sensors are able to monitor, communicate, and in many situations, address issues automatically, and much more quickly and accurately than ever before.”

These automated and connected devices can be found in some form in most industrial facilities today ranging from automotive assembly to plastics injection molding to textile fiber spinning factories. Once these devices become connected, the emphasis here is on the word ‘automated.’ You won’t see anyone monitoring many of these devices manually. Rather, computers maintain everything in the background and take process adjustment action within the system almost real-time taking into account many elements of inter-related process data.

For example, in a sophisticated fiber spinning factory, thousands of spinning heads might be equipped with a variety of sensors that all feed back to a single process management center in order to allow related process variables to be controlled in a coordinated way. Recordings will show what process parameters need to be adjusted, such as when temperature is getting below process standards, the computers will make process adjustments without human intervention.

While sensor technology has been around for years, it is the rapid growth of internet connected devices driven by the expansion of wireless networks, both Wi-Fi and cellular, with their increasing coverage areas and data transfer speeds, that is allowing efficient inter-connection of process sensors throughout the factory, and equally important, in between inter-related sites that may be located far apart.  In addition, advances in the reduction in size of sensors is allowing them to be put into smaller spaces without having to do significant redesign, and allowing cost effective retro-fitting of equipment and facilities.

Costs are also going down. Ten years ago, if you bought a Wi-Fi card for a PC, you would have paid $100. Now you can almost get one free at Staples. The cost of sensor has also dropped dramatically. For example, some motion sensors now cost under a dollar and this cost is dropping 2% a year. This will greatly increase their use.


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