As the industrial internet of things becomes more widespread, the factory of the future is fast becoming a reality. But realising the benefits for your business requires careful planning

The term ‘factory of the future’ may conjure up spectacular mental images of ultra-high-tech facilities run by armies of robots. However, the real factories of the future are already here and they bear little resemblance to the world of science fiction.

“The main principle of the factory of the future is connectivity – devices with the ability to communicate often simple information to a computer,” says Brendan Free, Industry Sector Manager at RS Components. “We’re finding that manufacturers are increasingly aware of the benefits of increased connectivity and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

IIoT involves connecting industrial machinery so that it can provide big data to manufacturers to help them to improve their operations. But how this technology is introduced and applied will vary greatly between different businesses.

"Condition-monitoring coupled with connected devices can provide you with a clear early warning of when a piece of machinery is going to break down"Brendan Free, Industry Sector Manager, RS Components

In some cases, companies invest heavily, particularly in new factories and sites, and introduce IIoT-ready machinery throughout, all linked to suitable business management software.

However, Free points out that most manufacturers do not take this route. “The challenge a lot of companies face is trying to use this new technology retrospectively on existing equipment,” he says. “But it’s not uncommon to find their plant, machinery and IT systems simply aren’t compatible with IIoT in their current shape.”

Simple solutions
However, there is also sometimes a belief that IIoT is more complicated than it needs to be. “The fact is, you can put relatively simple sensors on machinery that will provide you with a clear early warning of when that equipment is going to break down,” explains Free.

“Essentially, in the past maintenance teams had to wait until machines broke down in order to carry out repairs, but now sensors can pick up when motors are getting too hot, for example, and alert the maintenance team to monitor the situation and carry out repair work before something goes wrong.

"Information is powerful and the data you can get from IIoT puts you in a position to make good decisions for your business"Brendan Free, Industry Sector Manager, RS Components

“This allows companies to carry out planned maintenance at a time that suits them, when there is the least impact on productivity. You can quite quickly assess the efficiency of that machine – how well it’s running and how often it is down for – and you can then build cost calculations for getting a replacement,” adds Free. “Information is really powerful and the data you can get from IIoT technology puts you in a position to make good decisions for your business and look at wider trends around the efficiency of the factory as a whole.”

Although different businesses and different business sectors will follow their own specific path when implementing IIoT solutions, the sort of information available can be hugely valuable. Used properly, it should lead to significant cost savings and overall efficiencies. In order to realise these benefits, however, it’s crucial to bring in the right devices and put the data those devices generate to good use.

“At RS we look to collaborate with our manufacturing customers to talk about the huge range of IIoT technology we have available so that they can find solutions that will help them improve their operations,” says Free. “Making use of the knowledge that your suppliers have about this sort of equipment makes complete sense because we are in a good position to advise on the best technology to meet your specific needs.”