The evolution of manufacturing

As IIoT starts to prove itself, the eureka moments multiply

by Dez Blanchfield

Yes, it’s true, we’re far from full IIoT adoption (the Industrial internet of Things), and we’ll be living with a hybrid of traditional and digital operations for some time to come. That’s actually a good thing. It’s still very early in this exciting journey, and we have barely begun mapping out where it can and will take us.

What IS happening is more proof of concept in how digital manufacturing can be done, inspiring significant change in how much ownership manufacturers have over who they are developing for, under what terms, and (obviously) how fast and at what standard cost.

Into the midst of all that comes my interview with David Van Dorselaer, AVP Industry Solutions – Manufacturing at AT&T Business. He didn’t deny that our hybrid manufacturing world is a bit messy – with lots of blank space between operational technology and IT, for example – but his use cases of places where IIoT has already completely transformed how manufacturing is done are fantastic. We even have a cultural pivot happening as manufacturing adopts the fail-and-fail-fast “agile” approach that's most commonly in the domain of startups.

I’m particularly excited about the transitional shift-of-focus from “things” to “services.” Manufacturing has for so long been about how we produce more of X widget at Y quality for Z fixed price, the R&D of what to produce notwithstanding. As much as there were incremental gains in productivity, there was still this enormously real physical process that WAS manufacturing, that dictated what could be done based on fixed cost widget economies, whereas now, through the utilization of IoT, a services-based pricing model can be applied.

Mind you, there is still a giant opportunity to reduce “time to monetization.” IoT, powered by various blends of artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML)/Multi-Access Edge Computing (MEC) AKA “edge computing,” and Fifth Generation telco (5G), are identifying completely new ways to intelligently reduce costs in both production and supply chain, including “on demand” delivery and other dynamic adjustments according to demands and seasonal shifts. It’s to the point where manufacturing is practically thinking in “stack” terms, from previously unheard of supply chain control out to fleet and asset tracking.

“We're seeing a lot of solutions coming together,” David said. “Customers are looking for this, where it really provides that visibility not just to the truck, but the trailer and also the asset inside of that. I think that's a key trend that we will continue to see, providing that kind of important visibility.” And just imagine when the full strength of 5G comes to bear! Manufacturing is an incredibly perfect candidate for discrete 5G networks with enormous edge computing requirements.

In effect, what we’re seeing is the self-disruption of a long-standing industry and market sector. If executed appropriately, this new self-reliance could dramatically reduce the impact of consumer-driven disruption, which has such a volatile impact on so many industry sectors and their markets. The manufacturing customers of AT&T Business that David’s team supports are doing their best to stay ahead of change and proactively prepare for the coming changes.

Another hero moment belongs to the advances in digital twin applications in manufacturing. David and I discussed how, when key indicators on the real machine start showing signs of failure, the digital twin can go into hyper acceleration, using big data analytics to run potentially billions of scenarios to determine the best course of action. This is where the low-latency, high-bandwidth, high-speed power of 5G will truly transform what can be done.

“5G really is a game changer [for manufacturing],” says David. “You're going to be able to do that AI, ML computing now, at the edge, that used to have to be in the cloud.” Be it a business or operational target desired by the business, enabling a digital twin to inform its associated real-world asset how to best respond to situations, in 5G-style real time, is a game-changer.

We are only just beginning to comprehend the impact of synchronous bidirectional movement of data and instructions from an IoT sensor or device to/from one or more digital twins. As they become more thoroughly utilized, digital-twins will have flow-on impacts beyond fundamental operational and business benefits, on up to saving lives, I am sure of it.

Another key topic I discussed with David is how the very perception of “data” in manufacturing has changed – how it’s gone from an annoying cost of business to an asset. As David put it, “historically, technology was looked at as a cost item.” Now, data has KPIs and a balance sheet. It’s no longer a problem child, it’s the leader of the class, with entire new business functions and C-level job roles created around it (such as Chief Data Officer and Chief Privacy Officer). With this kind of support, the entire manufacturing industry is rapidly shifting to thinking and behaving digitally.

IIoT isn’t just reducing costs or increasing efficiency; it’s upending the concept of production lines/cells in favor of dynamic manufacturing, manufacturing on-demand, and Manufacturing Services.

Dez Blanchfield is a strategic leader in business & digital transformation, with three decades of global experience in business and the information technology & telecommunications industry, developing strategy and implementing business initiatives.