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Real-time insight: connected factories and the future of manufacturing
personDuncan Jefferies eventDec 11, 2019

Real-time insight: connected factories and the future of manufacturing

The Industrial Internet of Things offers manufacturers real-time visibility into their processes, assets and supply chain, but security is still a concern.

Although manufacturing is still fundamentally about turning raw materials or parts into products, modern factories bear little resemblance to their 20th-century forebearers. Today, robots increasingly work alongside human employees, and so-called “lights-out” factories are run almost entirely by machines. Many manufacturers are also connecting their equipment, employees and software systems – an approach known as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

These connected factories are built around networks of sensors, cloud storage solutions and advanced analytics platforms that facilitate the seamless sharing of information between people and machines. By analysing all this data, manufacturers can radically improve their production processes through predictive maintenance of their equipment. They can also access deep insights into their costs and inventory, as well as how each element of the factory or wider industrial ecosystem is performing.

Manufacturers can intelligently switch production among machines or facilities, for example, or develop processes for automatically ordering more raw materials. Indeed, CEO and Founder, Natan Lindera at Tulip, an MIT spinout that offers a no-code app development platform tailored to manufacturers, says connected factories offer considerable benefits – many of which stem from the fact that digital technologies are making process data more accessible. 

“Whiteboards and stopwatches are still the standard for data collection in many factories,” they told Hack & Craft Insights. “Increasing connectivity makes it possible to eliminate manual data collection, improve data integrity, and create real-time process visibility. All of this leads to faster improvement cycles and more targeted, effective initiatives.”

With everything connected and regulated from a central hub, manufacturers no longer need to shut down part of the production line to repair malfunctioning equipment; instead, sensors coupled with machine learning software can alert technicians when there’s a potential problem developing. A surge in power demand or increased level of vibration from a piece of industrial equipment could indicate that it needs servicing, for instance, which can then be scheduled and carried out well before the issue becomes critical. 

RFID tags, meanwhile, allow workers to easily locate components no matter where they happen to be, minimising waste and delays. “RFID tags are almost always accurately identified and can be extremely durable,” says Daniel Dombach, director of EMEA industry solutions at Zebra Technologies, which builds enterprise-level data capture and automatic identification solutions that provide businesses with operational visibility. “This is crucial for any kind of automated factory environment, where an incorrect component could potentially stop production, increasing costs by the minute.”  

Source: Adobe Stock

RFID tagging can operate across large areas, integrating data with back-end systems to accurately track the location of items, thereby turning factory zones into a seamless IoT environment. “A delivery’s contents can be identified immediately upon receipt and directed to the correct storage area, without human intervention,” Dombach explains. “Anything can be located, retrieved and delivered where it needs to be, considerably reducing lost and miscategorised items.”

Connected security solutions – including biometrics, image recognition, and environmental sensors – can also give manufacturers better control over who has access to sensitive production assets and systems. “For example, IoT solutions that include facial recognition can eliminate ‘badge swapping,’ which puts unapproved people in a tool crib, or uncertified operators at the controls of a machine,” notes PwC in its recent ‘In IoT we trust’ report.

“Other benefits come from the fact that connectivity also means responsivity,” says Tulip’s spokesperson. “By connecting sensors, workers, and machines, you can design digital workflows that guide operators through complex processes. These workflows reduce errors while improving efficiency.”

Workers whose manual skills are valuable to a company may find that they become even more valued when they have access to an internet-connected device that can provide real-time situational awareness and guidance. “Everyone from production-line workers to those supporting heavy machinery find it easier to do their jobs better, faster and with fewer errors when they have technology tools at their disposal,” says Dombach. “Specifically, mobile computing tools that are plugged into an IoT platform.” 

Given all these benefits, it’s perhaps not surprising that PwC found some 71% of industrial manufacturers have active IoT projects or ones in development are either building or testing IoT-related solutions. Although they’re not put off by the spectre of security threats (93% believe the benefits of IoT exceed its risks) that isn’t to say they have no concerns at all. In fact, some 53% of respondents claimed they were “extremely concerned” about cybersecurity – the highest number among all the industries PwC surveyed. 

These cyber-attacks are difficult to protect against, given the sheer number of connections IoT involves. Legacy IT environments and outdated processes and skillsets are a further barrier to IoT adoption, given that IoT implementations need to be able to work on top of and with existing enterprise systems and equipment. Manufacturing environments may feature numerous ageing machines that cannot talk to one another, for example, or perhaps even connect to the internet. 

Source: Adobe Stock

Aside from the obvious data integration challenges this poses, replacing this legacy equipment is generally a costly and time-consuming process. That said, there’s no need for manufacturers to connect every single person, process and piece of equipment in one fell swoop; they could move from a connected assembly line to a connected plant, and from there to a connected network of factories, suppliers and other supply chain stakeholders. In this fully connected environment, both underperforming and overachieving plants can be identified, and resources and processes shifted around accordingly. One plant may have high utilisation of a certain machine, say, and another less so. This might indicate that the latter isn’t being effectively maintained or used, perhaps due to inadequate training. The former, meanwhile, could form the basis of best practice that could be rolled-out more widely. 

This is arguably the end state of the connected factory: a high-functioning node within a wider network of factories, suppliers, and even customers. In this scenario, the effects of changes in processes at one plant can easily be tracked across the entire organisation, and production processes constantly shifted to address changes in the supply chain or fluctuating customer demand. We’re still some way off that world, of course. But given the huge interest in the Industrial Internet of Things, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes reality.

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