IoT integration critical to digital manufacturing strategy

Internet of things technology turns data into information, but only with manufacturing software and IoT integration. Here's a look at challenges and components of that integration.

The internet of things is poised to become an information hub for enterprise platforms as low-cost sensors and communications modules make it possible to connect and collect data on virtually any product or asset. Indeed, IoT technology promises to deliver insights that will aid in better decision-making

As low-cost sensors and communications modules make it possible to connect and collect data on virtually any product or asset, the internet of things is poised to become an information hub for enterprise platforms, delivering insights that will aid in better decision-making.

Once an IoT-enabled product is launched in the field or at a plant, it can become an information source that feeds critical enterprise platforms, from manufacturing execution systems (MESes) running plant operations to supply chain and maintenance systems governing activity in the field. "Every other piece of software in companies can consume the data for something," said Bryan Kester, director of IoT for Autodesk, likening the role of an IoT information hub to how a point-of-sale system is used in major retailers.

"Companies like Wal-Mart drive minute-to-minute interaction about what is happening in the company from the cash registers," he said. "IoT provides that same transactional, real-time data back from the world."

IoT integration is critical to that insight, however. With the right level of integration, IoT data can inform the customer relationship management system to aid in a better customer experience for product support or help salespeople know when it's time to promote a new product, he explained. Similarly, IoT data can work in concert with a supply chain management (SCM) system to facilitate the delivery of spare parts for maintenance work on a product well before it breaks down. It could also initiate a product change, swapping out components that aren't performing well in the field with parts from a different approved supplier, Kester said. "IoT becomes a digital nervous system for your company, and there isn't a system it doesn't touch," he explained.

IoT integration challenges abound

Some enterprise systems -- MES and SCM, in particular -- have experience dealing with the time series data that is collected from IoT-connected factory floor equipment, but many are not able to handle that type of data, experts say. An even bigger challenge for all enterprise systems is how to handle the fire hose of data emanating from IoT devices so it can be integrated effectively with other enterprise systems. "Most systems are not architected for the amount of information coming from real-world operations," Kester said. "A piece of equipment in a factory might give off a vibration reading every second, but a manufacturer really only cares about what the average is for the day. You need to be able to filter out the noise to find out what's important and pass that information on to the SCM [or other enterprise systems]."

That's where cloud-based IoT platforms and analytics capabilities come into play. Pure play IoT providers, along with enterprise software vendors across multiple categories, are expanding their product portfolios with cloud-based platforms, connectors and data analytics capabilities that can help manufacturers collect, manage and shift through the copious amounts of data to pinpoint key insights. "PTC has made the biggest investments with ThingWorx, Axeda, ColdLight, Kepware and Vuforia. IBM has the infrastructure and multiple levels of analytics and a huge ecosystem. And Autodesk bought SeeControl, which gives them a cloud-based IoT platform," noted Stan Przybylinski, director of research at CIMdata, summing up some of the acquisition activity taking shape in this category.

Components of IoT integration

PTC and rival Siemens PLM Software see integration with the product lifecycle management backbone as a critical part of the IoT journey. For its part, PTC melded its ThingWorx IoT technology into the latest version of Windchill, release 11, so it can integrate data from physical products, web-based sources and other enterprise systems as part of helping companies gain valuable insights, whether it's to deliver preventive maintenance services or to guide future product designs, explained Swapan Jha, PTC's vice president go-to-market for its IoT solutions group. "PLM is the cornerstone of the digital engineering journey," he said.

At Siemens, the goal is to integrate IoT data into the backbone that spans the digital enterprise, including the Teamcenter PLM platform as well as the company's Tecnomatix digital manufacturing software suite, according to Alastair Orchard, vice president of the Digital Enterprise project at Siemens. In one example, the integration of IoT data can improve digital manufacturing models so companies can simulate a plant floor environment that accurately reflects reality before they sink millions of dollars and extreme manpower into building the physical environment.

"The combination of IoT and the enterprise backbone provides fundamental visibility into what's happening more than we've had before," Orchard said. "It also ensures that data is available to every participant around the digital enterprise to interpret in a context in which they understand."

Next Steps

Getting clear on digital manufacturing's benefits

Why is digital twin technology key to the future of manufacturing?

Thinking about your digital strategy

Dig Deeper on ERP and IoT