The Industrial Internet of Things is Here

Turning Point


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I recently attended Mazak Corp.’s Discover 2015 presentation at the company’s North American headquarters in Florence, Kentucky. It was an eye-opener. The theme concentrated less on new and improved machine tool products and much more on digital factory integration, also known as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT).

I’m convinced that this is the direction that manufacturing is headed. In the future, more shops will be making more complicated workpieces using a variety of processes. While that is already happening to a large extent with the sophisticated machines and processes in our arsenal, the next wave is coming in the form of connecting what we are doing as individual machines to a system that can treat the entire enterprise as a single machine.

Historically, we manufactured in what could best be described as silos. A machinist or operator would tend his or her machine and run the jobs assigned to it in somewhat of a vacuum from the rest of the shop. Spindle utilization, an important measurement of efficiency and productivity, was not really accounted for, nor was OEE. This was primarily because the tools necessary to account for production efficiency consisted basically of looking down a production line and seeing how many green lights were on.

In the next industrial revolution (which some say will be the fourth), connectivity between the green lights and the various components that contribute to their being green will be data driven and effectively create a two-way street of input and output. Mazak calls the exchange a Smart Box, and the company is rolling it out across the company’s product line.

The technology necessary to make this connectivity possible now has existed for some time. However, it has existed in isolation.

Basically, the package that Mazak has brought together in its Smart Box consists of three components. At its heart is MT Connect, which is a royalty-free manufacturing communications protocol to foster improved interoperability between manufacturing devices and software. The connectivity that is allowed by MT Connect enables the shop to harvest data from the entire shop floor, including machines, cell devices and processes. Because it’s based on XML and HTTP Internet technology, that data can be analyzed in real time and works with new or existing equipment.

Another piece of the puzzle is provided by Memex’s manufacturing communications platform called Merlin. It generates operational metrics, key performance reports and analytics of new or old equipment on the shop floor. It connects to any machine, using native MT Connect software protocol and uses hardware adaptors for older machines that allow use of MT Connect.

A third link in the IIOT chain is the Industrial Ethernet 4000 series switch from Cisco. It works in tandem with MT Connect and Merlin. It provides a way to resolve problems typically associated with access by enabling IT people and management-operations people to work together to facilitate improvements in machine efficiency.     

Combining MT Connect, Merlin and the Cisco 4000 switch into its Smart Box package allows Mazak to move the enterprise connectivity of machines and devices forward with enhanced monitoring, analytical capabilities and cyber security. Moreover, it’s a system that is scalable—not only for the big guys.

In his presentation about the IIOT, Bryce Barnes, senior manager at Cisco, shared insight that really struck me. He is a degreed mechanical engineer and as such likes machines, as do I and probably you. He is also an admitted software geek, which I am not and probably neither are you. But what he said about this connection between a machine tool builder and software giant, Cisco, was that he now sees the linkage between the IIOT and actually producing useful stuff. He described it as the virtual world finally meets the real world. Because of his engineering background, Mr. Barnes sees connectivity as a bridge between manufacturing real-world products and simply writing code. It’s a step to breaking down silos within a manufacturing enterprise with the goal of moving a company forward.

I tend to agree that identifying the need for analytics, monitoring and security will be issues for manufacturing ongoing. What is interesting is that it has been proven technologically possible to do all that now. All we need is the will to change and make our manufacturing base better.