The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things is making the digital factory more a reality— and numerous benefits in product quality, personnel safety, and profits.

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Dennis Hodges of Inteva Products (intevaproducts.com), doesn’t really use the term “Internet of Things” (IoT). He talks about “connecting things” on the shop floor. Sure, he says, “Internet of Things” is a sexier term for “connecting stuff,” which “anybody should be able to understand.” To him, IoT devices are “anything—anything!—that move,” are moved, or control movement.

Hodges is chief information officer for Inteva, a manufacturer of automotive things, particularly sunroofs, closures, door panel assemblies, instrument panels, and related motors and electronics. The company has over 30 facilities in 18 countries.

The IoT concept was still new when Inteva replaced its SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) system with the on-line Plex Manufacturing Cloud from Plex Systems (plex.com) in June 2008. Since then, customer requirements for traceability and testing have become far more stringent. IoT helps meet those requirements.

IoT refers to the convergence of computerization, networks, and cloud services for collecting real-time data “everywhere,” analyzing the data, and discovering useful information from that data.

Inteva didn’t set out to create a digital factory with IoT. Instead, IoT capabilities were just sitting around the plant. Industrial controls already doubled as data collectors. Industrial networks came in for the barcode scanner systems. Plus other things. And other systems. Once the infrastructure was in place, Inteva only had to upload the collected data to Plex.

At Inteva, IoT devices help maintenance determine the most likely problem in a machine before people physically inspect that machine. IoT helps reduce safety risks by predicting potential emergencies, pinpointing actual emergencies, triggering relevant warnings, and monitoring the location of people. Plant personnel can immediately see the status of press operations by clicking the appropriate icons in Plex, including part numbers being run, die changes, job schedules, and maintenance status.

Here are two things perfectly exemplifying IoT. Work areas have electronic screwdrivers with built-in torque meters and part bins with built-in weigh scales. Plex monitors both. The meters help assemblers screw in fasteners to the right torque. The scales determine whether a part is being grabbed from the wrong bin, or too few or too many parts are being grabbed from the right bin. Plex triggers audible prompts as required.

Is this “Big Brother”? No. This is not about keeping an eye on the workers. It is about achieving consistency in operations, which means that it is necessary to automate the equipment, then keep track of making sure that the tools do what they’re supposed to do. For example, consider a task like using a grease gun to lubricate latches. Inteva makes some 12-million latches per year. While it would be difficult—perhaps impos-sible—for a worker to apply precisely the same amount of grease latch after latch, Hodges points out, “You can get the automated tool to squirt the right amount of grease every time.”

Perhaps when the people in Silicon Valley talk about the Internet of Things they’re not thinking of things like latches and grease guns. Of course, given that the door latches are probably in many of the cars they drive, they’re probably happy that the IoT is working for Inteva, even if they don’t know it.