Is Your Industrial IoT Strategy The Emperor's New Clothes?

Tosha Fraley / May 5, 2017

For manufacturers, new technology has long been viewed as a gift that keeps on giving. New tools emerge, improving processes, products and productivity, and in turn those processes, products and productivity spur innovation that yields even better new tools. It’s been a reliable cycle that, while not without its challenges, has served our industry well for hundreds of years.

What a difference a Fourth Industrial Revolution makes.

The newest tech already out of the gate — cloud computing, sensors, big data, next-gen robotics, artificial intelligence, digital twin, AR — sits far beyond the reliable cycle described above, and at the center and edges of it all looms the Industrial Internet of Things. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, it also boasts a complexity that rivals teen emotions, tax law and Minority Report. What are the best ways to implement it? How can we best use it to drive innovation? As the web of connected devices, machines and people advances, how do we leverage it? How can we keep it secure?

These questions aren’t philosophical. They affect everything from our industry’s health to our nation’s security. The IIoT is still so new manufacturers have time to dive in early and leverage it to win new customers and new market share. Still, its newness also signals caution. Just as the ruler in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” showed himself a fool in his vain haste to look wise, so too can a hastily cobbled-together approach to the Internet of Things be your undoing.

So dive in cautiously. Here are a few practical steps to take when crafting your IIoT strategy that will keep you from the manufacturing equivalent of showing up naked to your own parade.

Define How You'll Use Data.

Your IIoT strategy will never be any better than the data you generate, collect, acquire and analyze, but defining what you hope to do with it at all has to be your first order of business. Far too often executives hope big data can function like a technological crystal ball, instantly revealing truths previously hidden and solving problems no one knew they had. In reality big data is just another tool, albeit a powerful one, and knowing how to wield it determines its efficacy.

Data, then, is more like a reverse Sphinx than a crystal ball. In order to arrive at its knowledge, the right questions must be asked of it. While manufacturers are chomping at the bit to apply big data to innovation a la “What will people want to buy next year?” This variety of prognostication of is meaningless. Data can only be actionably applied to questions that already have answers.

IoT CNC Machining

So what do you have the answers to? Jack Levis, Senior Director of Process Management at UPS and big data-wielder extraordinaire, put it best. “I don’t have a single big data problem,” he says. “I have business projects.” So what are your business projects? U.S. manufacturing trimmed the fat from our factories and machine shops long ago thanks to lean and Six Sigma, but inefficiencies in our industry’s business processes remain. RFQs still take weeks or months to source every time. Supplier vetting still involves shop visits and gut checks. With data available that can inform everything from pricing to supplier speed, capabilities and quality hits and misses, there’s no reason to run your business like it’s 1999.

No, it’s not sexy, but utilizing data to solve your company’s most mundane problems will help you get your IIoT feet beneath you so you can effectively strategize into more complicated terrain. It will also free up resources of time and money allowing for faster, more efficient product development and — yes, innovation.

Don't Go It Alone.

From cybersecurity to data mining, there are few good reasons for a manufacturer to tackle IIoT alone. The territory involved in developing and deploying a strategy that provides good ROI, yields increased innovation, cuts costs and otherwise allows a business to walk on water is vast and complicated. It’s also in constant flux.

The Industrial Internet of Things isn’t a fixed point in time and space. The technologies that have converged and are converging to make it possible are themselves continuing to undergo rapid change. Unlike the improvements of the past — lean, industrial robotics, the development of plastics, etc. — that could be adopted in and of themselves, the IIoT is not a single thing or way of operating. Instead, it is many, many different technologies and techniques, and how your organization uses it will be unique to your organization.

To avoid the excessive pressure of what we at MakeTime refer to as “Keeping up with the Jetson’s,” manufacturers would be wise to invest in partnerships with disruptive innovators, stakeholders and other drivers of the current Industrial Revolution. Besides the reality that the IIoT is still being invented and innovated, partnering with companies at the bleeding edge of tech will immediately avail you of real expertise.

From partnering with a data-driven tech startup that can move your CNC machining procurement online to investing in sensor technology that can generate data from end users of your products to utilizing PLM software that provides value through digital twin technologies, going it alone will just ensure you fall further behind. IIoT is all about combining technologies for exponential insight and gain, and partnership is the best way to do it effectively.

Don't Expect It to Solve Your Problems.

Finally, investing in IIoT is not a path to a problem-free future. Competition will still exist, and it — like you — will keep looking for an advantage. Rather than expecting the Industrial Internet of Things to solve your problems, then, it’s best to consider it a new and more efficient path to approaching them.

This difference is not a splitting of technological hairs. If you invest in IIoT and expect the insights gained to fit neatly into your current business plans and projections, you’re going to be wildly disappointed. The new and disruptive technologies coming online in droves will not work well within a traditional manufacturing model. A bluetooth is useless if you don’t have a cell phone. A Tesla can only drive so far if you don’t have access to a charging station. Data is just code if you don’t have a way to analyze it.

IIoT will be nothing more than an expensive novelty if you don’t radically adjust the ways in which you approach your business — not just in procurement, pricing or forecasting — but in everything. Hiring, training, machining, projections, savings, profit margins, workspaces, budget, direct costs, Capex, insurance, risk mitigation — there is literally nothing about your business that doesn’t need to be brought to heel by the IIoT.

Only when U.S. manufacturing culture has been wholly transformed by and into the Fourth Industrial Revolution will all its promises reveal themselves. If that sounds like it might take a while, you’re right. It will. But that’s no reason not to invest now. The longer we drag our feet, the longer it will take for the ecosystem we need to exist in full.

It’s estimated the IIoT could add as much as $14.2 trillion to the world’s economy by 2030. Wouldn’t you like to make sure your portfolio and products are a part of it? Don’t end up the naked guy in the coming IIoT parade. Invest wisely in an actionable data plan, choose solid partners and ditch your expectations in favor of walking a brand-new path. The IIoT won’t happen overnight, but it will happen, and you can help determine its success and yours by joining in with the cautious acumen good manufacturers have always possessed.

Find out more about how MakeTime can assist you in a Fourth Industrial Revolution-approach to CNC machining procurement here.