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Machine-to-machine technology bridges real-time communication gaps

Machine-to-machine (M2M) technology gives manufacturers access to real-time information, whether their machines are across the plant or across the globe.

Access to real-time supply chain information has become a must-have for manufacturers in recent years. With the explosion of wireless networks and cloud computing, manufacturers are looking for instant communication across the shop floor or across the ocean. Machine-to-machine, or M2M, technology puts these real-time intelligence capabilities directly into the devices that manufacturing operations depend on.

Machine-to-machine technology is a somewhat misleading phrase when it comes to manufacturing, according to Joe Barkai, research vice president at Framingham, Mass., research firm IDC Manufacturing Insights. "It really means 'machine to back office' or 'machine to humans,' where these machines are communicating from a remote location to a centralized location," he said.

Originally, M2M was mostly focused on remote diagnostics and maintenance, Barkai explained. Machines with M2M applications built in can send an alert to their owners when something is wrong. A repair person can then arrive quickly and with the right parts, reducing the need for multiple service visits.

Product restocking is another basic use case for M2M technology, said Barkai. "If an ATM or vending machine is running out of products, you don't have to find this out by making regular maintenance rounds -- now the machine can tell you instantly," he said.

Utility companies are starting to use M2M applications for their own routine maintenance, according to Michele Pelino, principal analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. Sensor-enabled "smart meters" can instantly transfer data on a location's gas or electricity use back to a central office, cutting down on monthly in-person meter checks, she said.

"M2M technologies have been around a long time, but now we're seeing more use cases being driven by the fact that the price points by device are going down, and there is much more wireless connectivity for transporting information," Pelino explained.

Some manufacturers have transferred some of these new, more affordable applications of M2M  to the consumer side. Barkai sees this happening particularly in the automotive industry, where M2M is generally referred to as "telematics." In-car intelligent sensors send alerts about engine trouble, or even save lives through real-time accident diagnostic programs like OnStar. Pelino points to medical device manufacturers, many of which are giving patients the power to measure critical functions such as heart rate, blood pressure and glucose levels, and send that information directly to their doctors.

M2M software in manufacturing environments

M2M's uses aren't limited to product maintenance; intelligent machines also increase efficiency throughout the manufacturing process, expert say.

"While from the grand technology perspective, M2M is usually a one-size-fits-all, there are some more specific applications on the manufacturing verticals levels," said Herb Congdon, associate vice president of the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). "There are RFID tags and just-in-time manufacturing [M2M uses], as well as controlling and tracking what's coming in and going out of the warehouse. With a lot of M2M technology, what we're talking about is sensors; these sensors can be tracked all the way through the manufacturing process."

When the various machines used during the manufacturing process can talk to each other, businesses can make mission-critical decisions in real time, according to Congdon. "That's the real benefit. We've kind of seen some of those benefits with [program logic controllers] but M2M is more," he said. "It helps with the entire process from raw materials to outgoing products, as well as transportation and storage."

In the early days of M2M, communication between devices was limited to point-to-point, localized interactions, Congdon said. Now with the availability of new sensors and chips, companies can communicate with their machines through the cloud. "The home office can keep track of what's going on in their facilities all over the world as if they were across the street," he said. "All the info that was only available locally can now be accessed anywhere at any given time, and that adds real confidence to the decision-making process."

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Remote monitoring of manufacturing machinery may become more necessary as workforce demographics change, noted Barkai. "With an aging workforce, all the people with experience [maintaining machinery] are leaving," he said. "This means there will be fewer people on the floor with the needed expertise. Here, M2M helps if there's a failure online with a machine, because the expert can connect remotely to help fix it."

Pelino sees M2M applications being used on the transportation and logistics side of the manufacturing process, with the aid of RFID and GPS. "Suppliers and manufacturers can now track pallets of stock to know what is coming in and the exact pieces and quantities to be delivered," she said. Real-time visibility in shipping also reduces lost containers and costly warehouse overstocking.

Barkai noted that M2M can also be used in transportation to track the status of temperature-sensitive shipments of food, beverages or even chemicals. Instead of discovering that a container has not been maintained at the proper temperature after the shipment has already been spoiled, M2M-enabled containers can give constant temperature updates to the home office and instantly alert truck drivers if something goes wrong.

One of the biggest concerns about using M2M across manufacturing is security, according to Barkai. Because most industrial networks were designed when security concerns were not high, companies with machines connected remotely today are more exposed to breaches -- some of which could be serious. Barkai cited the Stuxnet virus that attacked Iranian nuclear facilities in 2010 as a recent example.

M2M technology trends to watch

As wireless networks and cloud computing's capabilities continue to expand, so will M2M's possibilities, said Congdon. "Much of TIA's efforts are around developing M2M technologies through increasing the breadth of the service that M2M companies can use," he said. "That will get a lot of attention in America and globally. There's a tremendous demand for spectrum to be cut loose by the federal government to give carriers access to more bandwidth."

Congdon also sees some potential struggles for machine-to-machine providers to accommodate the wide variety of devices that customers want added to their networks. "When you start talking about the M2M space, you've got hundreds or even thousands of customers with specific needs," he said. "You can't step from a dozen or so channels to a thousand channels without changing your approach. I think third-party services might start offering certification to make customer devices work on the desired networks."

In the coming years, M2M will become common across most manufacturing verticals, according to Pelino. "Certain industries are further along than others, particularly automotive. You're going to see a broader deployment of healthcare with 4G, as well as more uses in consumer and utilities companies," she said. "Nobody wants to fall behind with technology, so it won't just be high-end manufacturers using M2M."

Pelino cautioned that this broader M2M adoption won't happen overnight. "You're changing not just how an object is traced, but how customer service, repair and replacement are done," she said.

Barkai predicts that, with the growth of wireless networks and devices, questions around M2M usage in manufacturing will shift from "How can these devices be connected?" to "How can these devices be connected while still remaining private and secure?"

"We need the standards in place for these devices," he said. "Traditionally, the biggest hurdle was the connection between devices and carriers. Pretty soon those questions will become moot. M2M will become easier, but the content and value will still be a challenge."

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