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M2M software options expanding for manufacturers

Larger wireless networks are allowing M2M software vendors to offer expanded services, which can benefit manufacturers.

The growth of machine-to-machine (M2M) software options was once hindered by limited Wi-Fi and mobile connectivity. But now with wireless communication being the norm and networks more expansive than ever, M2M vendors are offering a wide range of services that could be a boon for many manufacturing verticals.

"You can accomplish a lot by adding intelligence to your machines," said Nick Jones, vice president and distinguished analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Research. "If you look at the general principles of M2M, you can see many business models emerging from this technology. Those models include how to reduce the cost of [machinery] maintenance, as well as monitoring expensive assets."

Companies can monitor how much a machine is being used and schedule maintenance based on that, he said. Even better, M2M allows machines to broadcast a distress signal when an error occurs, so a repair person can be sent out as soon as possible.

Use cases for machine-to-machine technology in manufacturing

While M2M applications have traditionally been used to monitor machines outside a company's facilities -- vending machines and elevators are well-established examples -- the technology is finding new use cases within the shop floor and warehouse. Jones pointed out that some manufacturers -- namely, those in the automotive industry and other industries where products are assembled in multiple locations -- are using M2M software such as radio frequency identification (RFID ) tags to track the progress of individual units as they travel through the assembly process.

Jim Wert, general manager of the deviceWISE platform at ILS Technology, has seen excitement grow around shop floor M2M during the past few years. The Boca Raton, Fla.-based M2M vendor specializes in remote monitoring services for manufacturers and machine maker original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

"Manufacturers can attach the deviceWISE gateway to a machine and allow that machine to communicate back to them," Wert explained. "Data is sent through a secure service using remote apps and our hubs in New York, Taipei and London."

One manufacturing vertical that Wert has seen embrace M2M software is energy and utilities. Oil and gas, wastewater and municipal utilities all have to manage a wide array of remote assets. More companies are using M2M devices to send out status and usage info from meters to operations centers, he explained. Demand response signals can broadcast information from remote stations to the central hub of a utility company, cutting down on the need for in-person meter and equipment checks.

"[With M2M] there is the ability to monitor the flow of gas and oil to do maintenance tasks like shutting on and off valves. We've even done this with a milk pipeline in India," Wert said.

M2M software making use of wider cell networks

The growth of wireless cellular networks has meant the growth of M2M capabilities; in fact, it's not uncommon for M2M vendors to form partnerships with cell carriers to better meet customer demands, experts say. One example is RACO Wireless, a Cincinnati, Ohio-based M2M provider. The company has a long-term commitment with T-Mobile to carry M2M applications over a 2G network, according to John Horn, president of RACO Wireless.

ILS has also formed partnerships with major wireless providers, including AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and Motofone, said Wert. By accessing M2M through wireless and Software as a Service, manufacturers can avoid hefty upfront fees and server fees, instead paying only a monthly bill, Wert explained.

By partnering with a wireless company, M2M vendors can also ensure that the connectivity that is essential to their applications will always be available.

"It takes some effort to get M2M solutions into the enterprise, and nobody wants to have to turn it off just because their provider decides to turn off the 2G," said Horn. "It used to take months to get customers onboard with M2M," but faster wireless networks have now made it possible to implement M2M software within a day, he said.

The new simplicity of setting up M2M on a wireless network has made the technology available to manufacturers of all sizes.

"It's just as easy for us to support a company with 1,000 M2M devices as it is for us to support a company with a million M2M devices," said Horn. "You see very rapid returns on investment through greater efficiencies and product sales."

M2M applications connecting manufacturers, shippers, customers

Expanded wireless networks have also expanded M2M's uses past manufacturers and OEMs to customers and shippers, experts say. M2M monitoring software installed in cars, for example, has given birth to Pay As You Drive (PAYD) insurance, as well as Buy Here Pay Here (BHPH) car credit, Horn explained. Car dealerships can use M2M devices to remotely disable a vehicle if its owner fails to make payments, he said.

Shipping and logistics companies are taking advantage of M2M to improve shipment tracking, Horn said. He points to UPS, which has long used RFID and GPS to track packages, and remote monitoring and freight intelligence company OnAsset Intelligence, which has been approved by the FAA to keep live devices in the bellies of airplanes.

"Companies now can track shipments live and in real time," said Horn.

Manufacturing M2M software still posing challenges

While more manufacturers are deploying M2M applications than ever, there are still some roadblocks to adoption, Jones said.

"Part of the challenge of the M2M market is it is amazingly complicated. Someone has to integrate your wireless and hardware, manage subscriptions, send data to cloud service providers and back to manufacturers. Most IT staff doesn't know how to do this all themselves," he said. "Some M2M vendors are trying to make it easier to put it all together."

Wert predicts that, despite these challenges, M2M usage will continue to grow in manufacturing. "It's inevitable. We are seeing the integration of M2M technology at every layer in the value chain, from software makers to programmable logic controller (PLC) makers," he said. "Radically new M2M architectures will come into play as more manufacturers move into the cloud."

Jones agrees that M2M software has a bright future. "Machines are still the minority versus people, but I think in the future the number of cellular machines will outnumber cellular people," he said. "The costs are falling. The opportunities are there. The challenge [of M2M] is the imagination, in thinking of clever things to do with it."

Follow on Twitter: @ManufacturingTT.

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