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As the world emerges from the pandemic, manufacturers face both familiar and new challenges. These include labor shortages, closed operational technology (OT) systems with multigeneration programmable logic controllers (PLCs), an increased need to stay connected, and their commitments to their sustainability targets.

Their main objective now is to do more with less: to increase their productivity, reduce downtime and realize the vision of Industry 4.0, including closer integration not only within the factory walls but also with their suppliers and customers.

The Internet of Things (IoT) helps manufacturers to achieve these objectives through technologies that complement the OT environment and reduce the manual collection of data such as the temperature in a refrigerated storage room, the location of a shipping container or pallet, the vibration reading on a fan, or the volume of liquid in a tank. These technologies allow manufacturers to create digital twins of their operations and perform predictive or preventative maintenance to reduce downtime.

Traditional IoT use cases vary by industry but, apart from maintenance and digital twins, they tend to center on safety and security, the integration of OT with information technology, and asset tracking. Use cases include robotics and automated guided vehicles, computer vision (for inspections, safety and more) and remote worker assistance with the help of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality.

IoT solutions for manufacturing can be segmented into three main categories: geolocation, remote telemetry and advanced solutions.

The first is geolocation – tracking someone or something. Depending on the use case, the degree of precision can vary. Do you need to know an item’s location to within a centimeter or millimeter (for example, to position a robotic arm or pick a part) or do you only need to know roughly where it is – say, on a truck just outside a city?

Outdoor geolocation is usually done with GPS, but indoor geolocation poses challenges – in particular, calculating the Z-axis on a multistory building to determine what floor something or someone is on. Several technologies can be used indoors, including radio frequency identification (RFID), ultrawideband (for greater precision), Bluetooth Low Energy triangulation and ambient signal correlation. Manufacturers must first understand their requirements and environment before selecting a solution.  

The second category is remote telemetry. This refers to using sensors to monitor an asset (for example, measuring its temperature or vibration levels) or using an actuator to perform a task, such as closing a valve.  

OT data can tell you whether a machine is switched on, its revolutions per minute and more, and IoT can supplement that with data on vibration levels, temperature or humidity to help with predictive maintenance. Telemetry digitalizes the physical environment: is a door open? How much water is in a tank? What is the temperature of a refrigerated product? Is the trash dumpster full? It provides greater precision and enables the real-time monitoring of assets. You cannot manage what you cannot measure.

The third category is advanced IoT solutions. These integrate artificial intelligence and machine learning to provide alerts and insights. Examples include applying computer vision to monitor the use of personal protective equipment such as hard hats or to look for defects on a production line. Auditory sensors can provide an alert when there are anomalies in the noise a machine makes. Connected robots or drones can conduct remote inspections, make deliveries or take inventory across a manufacturing facility. A picture is worth a thousand words, and a camera is worth a thousand sensors.

Putting it all together with NTT

Simply deploying asset tracking, telemetry or an advanced IoT solution will not make a difference for a manufacturer unless the deployment can be operationalized. If it’s not, you’ll end up with many unintegrated pilot projects or point solutions, with operators on the factory floor ignoring alerts and failing to take action.

The first step is to understand what problem needs to be solved. Is it cutting downtime, reducing waste or improving worker safety? Based on this analysis, the right IoT components (sensors, network, edge computing, cloud, analytics, visualization) can be assembled to ensure a good fit with the environment, the use case and the required return on investment.

NTT offers the full stack of IoT building blocks as a service. Edge as a Service includes connectivity options ranging from low-power wide-area networks to private 5G. We also have eSIM-based and SIM-based solutions that cover 190 countries. 

In addition, our Edge Compute Services help to ensure lower latency and reduce cloud storage costs.

We are a leader in managed network connectivity services, and our Network as a Service offering provides future-proof capabilities deployed and managed by NTT. Multicloud as a Service lets our clients combine public, hybrid and private cloud capabilities.

On top of all this infrastructure, our Smart Platform integrates IoT, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and other data to provide holistic insights and recommendations. In this way, we eliminate siloed data and point solutions to create scalable solutions for any organization.

Finally, to make the data actionable, our systems integration capabilities take a human-centric approach to application design to get the right information to the right person at the right time, in the right format. We integrate the data with your ERP and case management systems.

For example, an alert that a machine needs servicing can automatically generate a ServiceNow or Dynamics 365 ticket and kick off a workflow to have the right engineer service the asset. If the engineer gets stuck, they can rely on remote augmented reality (AR) assistance.

It’s all about the return on investment

What keeps our clients up at night? Their equipment from the 1950s might break down regularly and their senior mechanics are retiring. We make help them make a difference with solutions that address skills shortages, manual processes, inaccuracy, downtime, waste and inefficiency.

We can solve any problem, given enough budget, but the secret to making something work is that it must make financial sense. You have to understand the business benefits: what is the ROI you need?

By using our vast collection of IoT building blocks, we can ensure that the solution is fit for purpose and provides the ROI that any manufacturer needs.

Read more about NTT and IoT for Sustainability, and how we make connected manufacturing a reality.

Devin Yaung is Senior Vice President of Group Enterprise IoT Products and Services at NTT.