Imagine the Possibilities: Tomorrow’s Connected Industrial and Manufacturing Sector
Oct/Nov 2013

The Digital Revolution has transformed the industrial and manufacturing sector, unlocking unprecedented efficiencies, just-in-time manufacturing, global sourcing, and economic growth. But, as much productivity as technology has already enabled, the global industry is about to change even more with M2M.

With the ability to communicate with intelligent machines and ubiquitous sensors across every element of the supply chain and factory floor, industrial and manufacturing operations will become even faster and more efficient. Mountains of realtime data will also allow companies to understand and predict the behavior of equipment and systems with a much higher degree of accuracy.

These changes will have profound effects on the way industrial systems are operated and maintained. Ultimately, they may unlock entirely new business models, as industrial equipment shifts from a capital expense to a services-based economy. Let's examine some of the ways M2M communications are poised to transform global industry.

Boosting Efficiency
It was only a few decades ago "manufacturing" was synonymous with mechanical systems. Today, the sector is dominated by IT. Modern manufacturing companies use powerful IT systems to manage factories, logistics, supply chains, and more. M2M communications can take IT-driven manufacturing to the next level by enabling realtime connectivity with every piece of equipment and system in the factory. At every layer of the manufacturing process, companies will have sensors providing up-to-the-second data about operations.

Now, imagine that realtime connectivity expanded even farther—to every plant sourcing a part, to every storage facility, to every container on every truck or barge anywhere in the world that participates in the supply chain. With realtime connectivity, industrial companies will be able to reconfigure and adapt manufacturing processes and equipment on the fly, whether responding to a changing product specification, a problem somewhere in the supply chain, or changing customer demand.

This degree of connectivity will bring new meaning to the term "just-in-time manufacturing," allowing organizations to produce more, produce faster, and produce more reliably and predictably. It will also mean an end-to-end manufacturing and supply chain system that is far more efficient, which translates to lower operating costs, and lower costs of manufactured goods.

Increasing Uptime with "Big Data"
At the micro-level, M2M connectivity will allow companies to identify problems with any piece of machinery. Industrial organizations will be able to respond to issues quickly, and in some cases, equipment may even be able to order repairs on its own, automatically.

This capability will reduce unscheduled downtime, but it could radically reduce scheduled downtime as well. Currently, industrial companies need to regularly turn down equipment to perform scheduled maintenance and health checks. But, when companies are aware of the health and status of every piece of equipment at all times, this type of scheduled maintenance may no longer be necessary. Rather than shutting down an entire factory, companies may be able to perform maintenance on equipment in a few minutes or hours.

At the macro-level, the potential of data is even more exciting. Industrial companies and analysts will be able to collect enormous amounts of data on how industrial machines operate. By culling this data, they will be able to create finegrained analytics and predictive algorithms to optimize the performance, cost-efficiency, and uptime of industrial systems.

Unlocking New Business Models
One of the more intriguing implications of M2M on global industry is the potential to shift industrial equipment to a service-on-demand model, similar to cloud computing. Of course, equipment itself will always be part of manufacturing systems—companies can't virtualize an air compressor, for example. But they can shift to a model where suppliers no longer sell air compressors, and instead sell compressed air as a service. The supplier provides the equipment to the work site or factory floor, monitors and maintains it 24 hours a day, and provides the guaranteed end product that the manufacturer needs (i.e., compressed air) under a service-level agreement.

This model could provide efficiencies, allowing a manufacturer to focus on core competencies and requirements while "outsourcing" many elements of the manufacturing chain. After all, for many aspects of an industrial system, the customer ultimately just needs the end product. In many cases, it will make more sense to purchase a guaranteed service to provide that end product, rather than making a huge capital investment in a piece of equipment, as well as taking on the ongoing expenses to operate and maintain it. M2M also gives industrial suppliers the ability to monitor and support heavy equipment across multiple customers and multiple countries in realtime.

Choosing Cellular
All of these possibilities are exciting, and M2M communications enables all of them. And while a variety of communication technologies are being used on today's factory floors, cellular M2M holds the most potential for real transformation.

First, cellular solutions provide the mobility and flexibility next-generation industrial and manufacturing systems will require. It may sound counterintuitive to think of heavy machinery being mobile, but in fact, equipment on the factory floor is reconfigured frequently. Auto manufacturers, for example, regularly change the layout of a factory in response to changing models, loads, and demand. If an industrial company relies on fixed communications for connected machinery, those changes are much slower and more expensive than they would be with cellular connections.

Cellular becomes even more crucial when considering the "industrial machinery as a service" model described previously. If an industrial supplier is agreeing to provide a service under a guaranteed service agreement, the supplier must be able to maintain constant, reliable, high-speed connectivity with deployed equipment from a remote location. They must also be able to monitor and control equipment for multiple industrial customers, potentially around the globe. Cellular M2M is the most straightforward, easy-to-deploy-and-configure solution to meet these requirements.

Overcoming the Barriers
A growing number of companies and analysts recognize the potential of M2M in global industrial and manufacturing systems. But several barriers must be overcome.

First and most important, industrial companies need "industrial-strength" M2M solutions. They need rock-solid, secure, highly reliable M2M modules and modems that can withstand extremely demanding operating conditions, and function reliably for many years. Industrial and manufacturing equipment also employ a large number of unique, highly specialized protocols. Effective M2M solutions need to provide the intelligence and flexibility to communicate with the broad range of industrial machinery deployed.

Industrial companies and suppliers also need advanced capabilities to remotely monitor, manage, and update these solutions from the cloud. Finally, the overall costs of building and deploying M2M solutions must continue to decline. M2M means much more than just a modem; connected applications (including modem, microprocessors, embedded applications and protocols, etc.) need to become less expensive to develop, integrate, and deploy. Fortunately, new industrial M2M solutions are emerging that meet all of these requirements. Modern 4G/LTE modules provide the high-speed, low-latency connectivity that end-to-end remote monitoring and control of connected industrial equipment will require, as well as direct IP connectivity to the underlying machinery.

New "multicore" modules provide an entire M2M ecosystem on a module, providing hardware, software, and cloud connectivity as a complete, pre-integrated solution that lowers the cost and time necessary to deploy connected systems. The latest generation of Sierra Wireless multicore modules also includes embedded open application frameworks and large libraries of industrial protocols, allowing for easy-to-deploy, flexible M2M solutions that can quickly connect with industrial equipment.

Companies can also now take advantage of M2M solutions designed and tested specifically for industrial applications. Sierra Wireless, for example, has worked with industrial customers for many years, building robust and secure M2M solutions that meet the most rigorous industrial specifications.

It will likely be several more years before we see ubiquitous connectivity across all elements of global industry, manufacturing, and supply chain systems. But with so much potential to benefit industrial companies, consumers, and the economy at large, the future may arrive sooner than you think.

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