M2M, or machine-to-machine communications, is a broad concept. It refers to any set of physical devices, sensors or – yes – machines – that can communicate with each other, sharing information, without manual intervention. In short, it is the core of the Internet of Things (IoT).
A vast array of potential application of M2M communications have been discussed in the press, from the ubiquitous connected fridges and smart homes, to more corporate possibilities. And indeed, for businesses, particularly on the industrial side, the possibilities seem endless. Warehouse management, traffic and remote control, logistics, robotics, supply chain and fleet management – M2M communications has a role to play in them all.
In today’s blog we’re specifically considering the issue of industrial equipment, which is frequently spread over a wide area. Industrial plants typically cover a lot of space in themselves but, more strikingly, most industrial and manufacturing businesses manage more than one such plant, potentially across international borders. As such, the question of how to look after widely distributed industrial equipment is a constant challenge.
Introducing Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities to industrial plants, whether by retrofitting existing hardware with sensors and smart applications, or by deploying brand new equipment with Internet capability ‘baked in’, can enable businesses to better handle what we’re calling the ‘three Ms’ of an industrial equipment portfolio. Here’s how.
This might seem like something of a catch-all term, but by management we mean enabling staff to have a single pane of glass view of all the equipment within an organisation – crucially, one that is updated in real-time. Sure, prior to M2M communications, it’s possible to maintain a manual process of all the equipment within a business, but this can get cumbersome once staff are dealing with multiple sites and a wide geographical area.
M2M communications means that it is possible for every piece of equipment to be automatically registered and tracked via a central, cloud-based analytics engine – giving plant managers seamless visibility and control of each separate device, sensor and machine. They have a unified view of the organisation’s hardware investment, a real-time understanding of how all the equipment fits together, and a truly holistic impression of the organisation’s physical assets. This kind of consolidated viewpoint is invaluable for making more strategic, smarter business decisions from improving OEE through improved utilisation and availability through to better material flow and Kanban.
Industrial equipment is typically both a hugely significant portion of a company’s overall assets, and the key to effective day-to-day operations. As such, it is essential for its performance to be effectively monitored, and any issues to be identified and repaired or prevented early. The beauty of M2M communications from a monitoring point of view is that, rather than requiring staff members to manually move around an industrial plant carrying out monitoring checks one by one, each piece of equipment can monitor itself, reporting back key data to that centralised engine. There’s still a crucial role for staff to play in terms of analysing that data and making decisions as to where intervention is needed, but this takes place from headquarters outwards – crucial when equipment is spread over a wide area. Vibration specialists will not visit site but will improve their productivity by analysing the data where they are with the majority of observations being handled by the machine itself.
Effective maintenance programmes are the bedrock of ‘asset sweating’ – maximising the useful lifespan of physical assets. Maintenance needs to take place at exactly the right point – before a problem becomes seriously damaging or interrupts operations, but not so early that it restricts productivity unnecessarily. Here, M2M communications and an intelligent analytics engine can help maintenance engineers both to isolate early maintenance requirements and to choose the right time for maintenance to take place – because they can track performance and demand trends and select periods of predicted low demand. And when serious problems do occur, M2M communications means that they can be rapidly, automatically pinpointed on the network, with no need for engineers to move around the entire industrial plant trying to identity what has gone wrong.
There is nearly universal agreement that investing in IIoT technologies represents a competitive advantage for manufacturers. Yet at the same time, many manufacturing companies struggle to overcome real or perceived challenges.