The road to IoT adoption

3D print concept

Dr Leon Prentice, research program director, CSIRO and presenter at this year’s Industrial Internet Summit shares his thoughts on how Australian manufacturing is doing with IoT adoption.

With a strong close to the last quarter of 2017, manufacturing in Australia looks to continue its steady rise through. However, a continuing bugbear of the industry that prevents it from taking bigger strides in growth would be the need to evolve and diversify, according to the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC). Funding from the Federal and state governments have indicated the right intentions from the political end but it does take two to tango.

Dr Leon Prentice told Manufacturers’ Monthly that he believes that there has been some uptake of IoT technology that has made a difference to individual companies. However, he believes that is based on a wide spectrum of manufacturers and most companies really haven’t gotten onto the IoT adoption bandwagon much at all. “In particular, the overwhelming number of Australian companies are small. Companies with fewer than 20 people make up about 88 per cent of all Australian manufacturing companies,” said Prentice.

“Those kinds of companies just do not have the capacity to take on new digital technologies that will make a big difference to their companies,” he continued, adding that, it is usually the large companies that have the capacity to put something in place to manage the information and infrastructure that are actually adopting new technologies.

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Prentice pointed out two critical things – raising the awareness within the leadership of these smaller companies (CEO, CFO, operations manager levels) that these types of tools exist. “For example, a lot of companies are just not aware that they can measure the idle times of machines,” said Prentice.

The second point is about making the goal manageable. “It is about finding the easy win somehow. Instead of having companies going to invest $100,000 in an SAP system or something similar, they could invest in something that is worth say $10,000 that sees an improvement which is measurable and easy to understand. Then, there is certainly more value there,” said Prentice.

Of course, it is not feasible to expect everybody to go full on with IoT enabled systems and have processes with dashboards filled with data but Prentice suggests that SMEs can start with a process, piece of machinery or production item that they make and work out how to analyse that using these basic IoT tools and then from there build capability to use that across the board.

“The IoT manufacturing technologies are about two sides of a coin – one is gathering the data or the information itself, while the other side is using the data and actually making the improvements out of it. I think at the moment a lot of it has been about the gathering of the data and systems to monitor or evaluate, but there is not that much emphasis on how companies use that information to make improvements,” said Prentice.

CSIRO plans for advanced manufacturing

One of CSIRO’s initiatives at the moment is looking at customised product lifecycle management (PLM) technologies. Additive manufacturing is much more complex compared to traditional part machining assembly because it is about creating material all the time instead of starting from a block and machining it into shape.

“It used to be that you would buy billets of aluminium and machine it back to the shape that you wanted and the main issues were certification of the billet itself and shape that you intended,” said Prentice.

“But when you are starting with powder and using a laser to build up a part, your certification and understanding of the part has got to be at a microscopic level. This is because you’re basically making new material at a 20-micron scale. So, the process to do the design for that differs greatly – from the assurance and sign off on design to make sure the design accounts for how you are going to do the process, through to post build analysis. All these different parts coming together to say that this part is as intended and should be qualified for its intended use becomes essential.”

At the moment, it is about how we manage the information flow through that process and in particular, the data. Whether it is the designers signing off something particular in the cloud or the machine operator who has a machine that is calibrated and certified and then uploading the file – all the digital information needs to be assessed and procured in the right ways, in order to end up with a final part and its digital representation and assurance.

“So instead of emailing Computer Aided Design (CAD) files or sending photos of parts you built, it is suddenly a far more robust and assessable piece of technology,” said Prentice.

One other thing that CSIRO is doing is the understanding and modelling of system at multiple scales – the building of a digital twin of a part or process.

“So, you have a physical process that the company may undertake (physical, chemical or mechanical), having the modelling side to predict what you’re going to make before you actually make it. What we are looking at is the process under it at all levels and this simulation gives you access to all parts of this in great detail,” said Prentice.