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FAQ: M2M technology for manufacturers

In this FAQ, learn how machine-to-machine technology is becoming a critical tool in real-time communication for manufacturers.

What is machine-to-machine (M2M) technology?

Machine-to-machine technology, sometimes known as the Internet of Things, is a blanket term for any technology that allows networked devices to "talk" to each other without human assistance. While this may sound a lot like the plot for the next Terminator movie, M2M is just another means of real-time information gathering. With machines that can communicate directly with a central location -- typically, a main office or plant -- organizations can receive up-to-the-second data without having to send a worker out into the field to collect it.

M2M is achieved mainly through sensor technology, including radio frequency identification (RFID), GPS, autonomic computing, Wi-Fi and, with increasing frequency, cellular networks. Devices that include built-in M2M capabilities are often referred as "smart" devices; common examples are Bluetooth-enabled products.

While new connectivity options have made M2M more widespread than ever, the concept itself is not very new. In fact, as early as 1912, telemetrics via phone line were being used to send operational data from the field -- in this case, a power plant -- to a central office. It seems that the machines have been talking to each other for over a century.

Can M2M benefit manufacturers?

M2M holds many potential benefits for manufacturers. Chief among these may be cutting back on travel-related expenditures. Take vending machines. Keeping them well stocked used to mean regular visits by company reps to check quantities and perform refills. Now, M2M-connected machines can send alerts right to the home office when product levels dip too low. By eliminating the need to send employees to check machine performance, companies avoid the costs associated with those visits, such as fuel and overtime pay.

Manufacturers in the energy and utilities industries can greatly benefit from M2M. Gone are the days when a human being had to go meter to meter, checking power usage levels. Now, smart meters can broadcast the information right into the ERP systems that store them. And consumer goods manufacturers can use M2M to provide after-purchase product service to their customers.

There are also uses for M2M within the manufacturing process. Sensor-enabled machines allow the central office and IT to keep track of system performance across multiple production facilities, and even perform maintenance on machines from continents away. Such connectivity translates to the shipping and logistics end of the supply chain as well. Pallets and boxes with sensors can communicate their location and status while on the road, and send an alert the moment they are delivered. And food, beverage or chemical manufacturers can receive real-time updates on the temperatures inside shipping containers, respond to unsafe temperature changes and avoid product spoilage.

Where does cloud computing fit into M2M?

The recent boom in cloud computing services has opened a whole new realm of M2M connectivity options. With the cloud, M2M devices are accessible from basically any Internet connection. A manufacturer that is using Platform as a Service (PaaS), for example, already has the necessary infrastructure to collect and send data, maintain the machines and push through software updates.

What makes cloud so appealing for M2M is also what makes it so appealing in general -- the price tag and the ease of use. Hosted services take the pressure off a company's IT staff and shift the burden of software and server maintenance to a third party. This frees up time to better analyze and react to streaming data from M2M devices. It also adds an element of flexibility to the remote functionality that is possible. Since companies aren't eating up IT resources to maintain systems, they are able to offer more remote services to customers and more support to their staffs -- and machines -- around the globe.

How about mobile computing?

Mobility is another newer technology that has been a boon for M2M communications. Smart devices rely heavily on wireless cell networks to function, and as mobility grows, so does the reach of these networks. For example, many newer cars come equipped with wireless technology to assist in emergency calls and vehicle maintenance. These remote diagnostics are one of the most common consumer uses of M2M technology and are made possible entirely by mobile networks.

Mobile M2M is also becoming a force on shop floors, as more manufacturers adopt ruggedized smartphones and tablets inside their factories. These devices allow for instantaneous updates on order statuses, product part locations and stock levels, equipment diagnostics, preemptive machine maintenance and troubleshooting.

Are there are security risks associated with M2M?

As with any technology that involves data leaving the four walls of the company, there are some security concerns associated with M2M. All the information floating out there makes an attractive target for hackers and data thieves. A malicious attack on an M2M-enabled device -- say, an important piece of equipment in a main manufacturing facility -- has the potential to disrupt the entire supply chain and temporarily cripple production. For food and beverage, chemical, utilities or pharmaceutical manufacturers, compromised source code on the production level could mean serious safety risks to consumers.

The good news is that most of these security risks are speculation, not reality, according to industry experts. There have been no apocalyptic M2M-related hacks to date in the manufacturing sector, and most IT departments -- whether in-house teams or third-party cloud support -- are well equipped to handle any breaches. The real-time nature of M2M is in itself a defense against hackers, as no security issues can go undiscovered for long while the machines keep talking.

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