What does the ‘Internet of Things’ mean for Manufacturing?

Posted by Simon Reid

Sector Manager, Advanced Manufacturing, Liverpool City Region LEP

Wed 12th, Aug

The ability of today’s technologies to self-diagnose, self-maintain, self-repair and optimise based on communicating with each other (‘machine-to-machine’ or ‘M2M’) means that there is an increasing amount of work that can be performed by machines in terms of increasing the quality and quantity of outputs whilst reducing costs and resource consumption. The German government aptly coined a phrase for this transition that we are now undergoing - ‘Industrie 4.0’ - the fourth industrial revolution.

The ‘cyber-physical systems’ involved in such operations are essentially robots that are programmed to not just do one task, but to do multiple tasks as relayed to them through a network filled with huge volumes of data being sent backwards and forwards from many servers, computers, inputs and outputs.

The communication system underpinning all of this is the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT). In the context of its applications in manufacturing, it is popularly referred to as the ‘Industrial IoT’/IIoT, enabling ‘Smart Factories’. It has further adaptations in its various renditions as an enabler of ‘Smart Cities’ and of many future preventative and clinical medical technologies – Smart Healthcare. In short, it is everywhere that we can find an object, connect a sensor to it and measure some variables in order to better inform the decision we make or the actions we take.

There is concern amongst some groups that further automation might be good for businesses but could displace workers whose jobs will eventually be taken over by machines. Nobody can say for certain what effect innovation such as the Industrial IoT will have on the overall necessity to employ people, but it is likely a little overly dystopian to assume that a digitalised workforce will render human effort obsolete in all but a programming capacity.

The ‘Industrial Internet Survey (2014)’ by the World Economic Forum indicated that participants in the survey were largely positive about the potential future employment impacts of IoT integration within their operations. What would be reasonable to expect to see is a shift in the dynamics of working groups, operating teams and OEM employee skill sets. Teams of technicians and engineers will not just need soldering equipment and hammers – it will become a necessity to have an embedded software expert and an electrical engineer with broad expertise across circuit boards, sensors, data transfer systems and operating nodes. In short, this should be seen as a huge opportunity – not a challenge or the end of the line for existing professions. As with all innovations in business, now is the time to upskill and adapt.

At the Liverpool City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, the Advanced Manufacturing team are driving forward efforts on multiple fronts to get businesses in the region in a position to be ahead of the curve. Through working with Sensor City we are looking to make the region a hub for the production of the technologies which enable the IoT, whilst the ‘LCR 4.0’ brainchild is being built to help existing manufacturers of products across the full application spectrum to adopt and incorporate the latest in IoT and cyber-physical technology, as well as ensure there is sufficient human resource to utilise it effectively.

The team welcomes interaction from companies operating in or thinking about IoT, IIoT and advanced technologies in general and have a strong support network featuring local creative communities, SMEs, support services and large industrial partners. For an informal discussion about what’s going on in the sector and the city region, e-mail Simon or Jonny at either simon.reid@liverpoollep.org or jonathon.clark@liverpoollep.org

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