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Depending on which source you consult, factories either date back to ancient Egypt or the earliest parts of the Industrial Revolution. Either way they’ve been with us for a very long time. Of course, they’ve had to adapt. The people who worked in John Lombe‘s water-powered silk mill at Derby in the 17th Century would not, for instance, recognise a contemporary smartphone factory. Today, factories aren’t just spaces where things are built, but smart connected spaces capable of adapting on the fly and producing constant streams of data.
That change is at least in part due to the multitude of sensors embedded everywhere within factories, from the buildings themselves, to the machines running in them, and even on the people working in them.
That network of sensors is collectively referred to as The Internet of Things and it’s having an increasingly big effect on the manufacturing space. According to technology research house Gartner, there are around 5-billion connected “things” in the world right now, with that number set to grow to more than 25-billion by 2020.
Here are x ways the Internet of Things is changing the way factories work.
1. Rise of the smart machines
By embedding internet-connected sensors in a machine — such as a robotic assembly arm, for instance — you make that machine smart. Thanks to that connectivity, smart machines can assess their location, as well as what’s required of them at that particular point and adapt autonomously. If something breaks down further up the line for instance, that robotic arm would know to shut down, or even change tasks, until the issue is fixed. That in turn means that things always run as efficiently as possible, saving time and money.
While these machines can make people redundant, they can also empower workers by allowing them to do things that we once thought of as impossible. Cognizant and cognitive systems can also help with decision-making, allowing people to make smarter decisions on the go.
2. Saving energy
A smarter building is a more efficient building. That’s as true of factories as it is of homes. With connected sensors embedded in a building’s ventilation and lighting systems, for instance, you not only get a clearer idea of when they need to operate but where energy could be used more efficiently. “If you control lights, heat, and cooling in a smarter ways, that’s really substantial,” Google’s Urs Hölzle said during a briefing in the first half of 2015.
He should know too. As head of Google’s worldwide network of data centers, energy efficiency is at the something that he has to think about seriously. Data centres consume massive amounts of electricity, so anything that helps reduce that is going to be of benefit. Applying the lessons learned in data centres can undoubtedly help factories too.
3. Saving lives
With the right sensors in place, factory buildings can detect how many people are in a place at any one time. Being aware of people means that processes or machinery can instantly be shut down when a worker is in danger. Equipping workers with wearables also means that they can be instantly alerted to changes in the factory floor environment and take action as soon as they need to.
Right now that kind of automation follows a “brute force” model, but as they get smarter expect factories to get safer for both machines and humans.
4. Increased production
Those are just some of the ways the Internet of Things is making factories more efficient. Taken together though, these and other efficiences can make factories exponentially more productive. One US bread company for instance was able to produce an additional 82 000 kgs of bread a day after introducing connected systems to its factories.
And because the best IoT systems for manufacturing allow for remote offering, a company’s best staff can focus on growing the business and improving processes, using data, no matter where they are in the world.
The IoT Focus is a series of articles appearing across the Burn Media sites. Brought to you by General Electric, the series explores what impact the Internet of Things is having on business, homes, startups, and other aspects of our everyday lives.