Earlier this year, there was some buzz over new IoT-related legislation passed in California, the so-called “Teddy Bears and Toasters Act.” It turns out the California IoT law may be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to legislative interest in the Internet of Things and related digital technologies, judging by a list put together by Alain Louchez, who heads the Center for the Development of the Application of Internet of Things Technologies (CDAIT) at Georgia Tech:
Most of these may seem unfamiliar except to sponsors and the lobbyists who helped write them, but that should come as no surprise considering they are still at a rough stage, with many stuck in committee or pending other types of review. Judging by the gridlock in Congress, few will ever be passed into law, but one thing’s for sure: IoT has Washington’s attention.
Barcodes are ubiquitous in the modern world, appearing on everything from books to vehicles. They are also ubiquitous in manufacturing for identifying and tracking parts, components, bins, tools, and finished products on the plant floor and into the supply chain.
There’s a big limitation with barcodes, however: They’re prone to error and encounter other difficulties in high-volume manufacturing settings.
A barcode reader can only read one barcode at a time
Barcodes have to be reprinted when information changes
Physical damage to barcodes is common in manufacturing, through abrasion or other wear and tear
Barcodes can’t be automatically read in certain situations
Polytron’s Lead System Architect Jim Flagg was describing serial number barcodes at a plant making filters, but it’s easy to see how other types of barcodes, from 2D to UPC, might be affected by some of the issues described above.
I’ve attended tech conferences for years, and I have come to expect a certain amount of grumbling from users about vendors. But at the IoT for Manufacturing workshop at Georgia Tech, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of bad vibes directed at vendors.
Indeed, most speakers and attendees expressed a sense of gratitude that vendors were providing solutions to some of their very real problems on the plant floor. They know that it’s impossible to design these solutions on their own (although some have tried with limited pilots with off-the-shelf hardware and software) so they have to work with someone to get the results that they want. Occasionally that involves academic partners such as the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute(which has architectures and designs for retrofitting kits available to manufacturing partners, as shown in the slide below) but often vendors and systems integrators get involved in a big way.
In addition to supplying much-needed technology solutions, I heard over and over how much people appreciated the declining costs of components. Heath Cates of Mountville Mills mentioned the use of low-cost hubs to connect sensors, PLCs and other devices at their main facility. William Hill, who helps run digitization efforts at Delta Airlines’s sprawling machine shop said the company spends about $1,200 to $1,500 to retrofit a piece of legacy equipment, which he considered to be a reasonable cost. He also praised the cost structure of one of Delta’s main IoT partners.
Lance Johnson of aerospace supplier Moog Inc. said they were able to develop low-cost IoT systems working with its IT team and vendors. However, he also acknowledged that during the evaluation phase they identified enterprise software vendors whose high cost and “nebulous ROI” was unworkable. “It was a no-go for us,” he said.
One attendee questioned the “false promises” offered by many vendors, which he said leads to frustrations down the road about what the products and solutions can actually accomplish. But that was one of the only comments I heard that was generally negative on vendors in the IoT space.
One of the most interesting presentations at the IoT for Manufacturing workshop at Georgia Tech was from Polytron, a systems integrator specializing in manufacturing. While the focus of the presentation was the resurgence of RFID on the shop floor, there were several other takeaways shared by the company concerning planning IoT deployments for clients. And, it offers hope for those who are alarmed by the IoT “pilot purgatory” trend pervasive throughout industry.
Polytron’s Richard W. Phillips, director of smart manufacturing, said that one of the first steps for the systems integrator when brought into an IoT engagement involves asking clients to identify business drivers. When it comes to IoT pilots, the company wants to identify ROI opportunities.
Fortunately, there are lots of low-hanging fruit – typically Polytron and the client might discuss 10 or 20 potential projects, which could be anything from setting up alerts to going paperless for some process on the plant floor. The team will then get to work on one pilot before considering scaling or expanding to other areas.
Phillips said, “Ideally, we minimize the number of technologies without giving up functionality,” and consider a 10-year timeframe for the implementation. He added that when it comes to new projects, it’s not just a matter of figuring out the best technology. “We try to understand impact of new technologies on people and processes,” he said. “Will workers be motivated?”
Another Polytron employee, Lead System Architect Jim Flagg, described a case study involving a beverage manufacturer seeking to launch a new product line. Even something that sounds simple (a solution to trace ingredients in a drink containing fruit and vegetable juice from farm to consumer) can get very complex from an IoT manufacturing perspective. Factors that have to be considered include:
Tracking ingredients with different expiry dates
Batching and packaging
Data collection for FDA compliance.
Polytron said the traceability solution that the client ended up using involved location and data tracking using RFID tags on palettes of vegetables moving around the plant, along with RFID labels on cases of bottles leaving the facility.
Alain Louchez, who leads the Center for the Development of the Application of Internet of Things Technologies (CDAIT) at Georgia Tech, started his presentation at this year’s IoT for Manufacturing workshop at Georgia Tech with some sobering numbers that should be familiar to anyone who has attempted industrial IoT: Most projects fail.
Citing reports from PWC, McKinsey,and others, the expert consensus finds that some 60%-70% of firms have trouble getting out of “Pilot Purgatory.” That can be a strong incentive to just throw up your hands and not push further, either because it’s assumed more failure will result or the team that pushed for the use of resources may even be punished … and who wants to be in that seat again?
As for the causes of the failures, there are many potential issues, some of them unique to individual businesses. Being too ambitious can be a problem. “Some companies have failed with their digitization projects, because they tried to do too much,” Louchez says.
That’s not only on an individual project basis; as one audience member noted, “We have 7 or 8 pilots, and it gets to be a bit unwieldy … there are a lot of fiefdoms.” Another advised to “think big but start small” when it comes to IoT pilots.