Smart monitoring solutions, control everything

Manufacturers across all industries are gradually turning to smart manufacturing and digitisation to improve their businesses. National product and brand manager at ifm, Glenn Thornton, explains.


Smart factories, Industry 4.0, IIoT – there are so many phrases circulating for readers to digest regarding technology in manufacturing, but what does it all mean?

For many years, machines were installed with simple switching signals that basically turned a machine function on or off. Then, about 40 years ago, automation came into effect and made machine processes more effective and efficient. This technology had a “wow” factor about it because we could manufacture parts faster with less human intervention. The designers of automation knew there was huge potential with the advancement of electronic chip technology.

This brings me to an often-used phrase, The Industrial Revolution. It’s not really a revolution, it’s an ongoing gradual progression that is occurring right in front of us. This is now commonplace in such terms as the Internet of Things (IoT) and can be found in everyday items such as smart phones, microwaves and cars. Even my dishwasher sings to me when it has completed a cycle, or a fault occurs – they are connected to the internet. We already expect to have the most modern tech gadgets available to us in our everyday items. This is the same for industry, but we just don’t know it. The technology is advanced with robust electronic chips most likely installed within your factory or process right now. The main difference between these items and domestic devices is that they are designed for the demands of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

With the rapid growth of digitalisation, a sensor with the standard “on off” signal now has an abundance of data inbuilt that begins our journey into the “smart factory” (or process). Producing goods or irrigating a large farm is no longer a shot in the dark, you now make high-level, informed decisions to create a sophisticated plant with optimised knowledge.

ifm customers who have taken up digitalisation of their processes are reaping benefits with machinery that is not only automated at plant level, but fully connected to networks that give 24/7 global information. This opens the potential for small businesses and large corporations to improve productivity due to less downtime, greater machine availability, which in turn improves profitability and your competitive edge.

Beginning to advance your process isn’t as daunting as you would think. First, you would start with a very low-cost solution to view a critical asset or process and see what information is sent to your PC or smart device. With this, you then make decisions on what you would need to improve the process.

The conversations we have had with some key clients has gone from scepticism and confusion to complete elation on the outcome – improvements in all aspects – machine uptime, product quality improved, losses reduced and of course, profitability up. The notion that sensors and connected devices from ifm were once thought to be cost prohibitive quickly evaporates once the system cost is explained, and the return on investment (ROI) with ongoing commercial benefits. To get started, you could have a couple of smart sensors connected to a smart controller and then out to the network for under $1,000.

The best way to explore the outcomes is to demonstrate real life project wins for our clientele.

Case study 1
During discussions between ifm and the manager of a food producer, it was found there were large costs associated with daily utilities such as water and electricity. We advised that measuring with sensors and readers, we could identify if there were losses that could be reined in. Flow sensors for critical water flow and electricity monitoring on key machinery were installed to establish where there was inadvertent waste. Water was lost due to valves being left on, with fresh water running into the recycling plant adding to running costs and local government penalties for releasing waste in the local waterways. We also found that the machines were all starting at the same time, which gave a high reading for the daily consumption. The simple plan was to create a staggered start plan for each machine, reducing electricity costs and coming back with an ROI of three months.

Case study 2

A large produce farm of several thousand acres uses millions of litres of water and they required a clearer picture of why parts of the crop were failing. It was found that when the pumps were run to irrigate the crops, there wasn’t any information to show the actual flow to areas of the farm, so certain trees got stressed, which led to the loss of a whole crop. Smart flow sensors connected to the cloud identified critical shortages of water. This information was readily available 24/7 and crop success increased by several per cent.

This is the case for hundreds of remote pump stations nationally that are unattended. The installation of simple sensing technology connected to a network provides complete connectivity and process visibility.

Case study 3
A microbrewer had critical temperatures that required monitoring. The owner needed to drive to the site every Saturday and Sunday to read these temperatures. With a simple and low-cost installation of temperature sensors connected to a network, these values were accessible 24/7 and now the owner can read values from home to know the product is being safely processed.

The aim was be innovative, have transparency with manufacturing and processing, and to be fully informed so necessary strategies could be implemented to be ahead of competitors.

You now have opportunities for data-backed decision-making across the whole supply chain. These innovations and technology are not just for the manufacturing sector. They include mining, agriculture, HVAC, commercial buildings, municipal vehicles, road working machinery – the list is endless.

This also includes maintenance programs, which could be the difference between success and failure for plant and machinery. Development in condition monitoring are at the cutting edge, with high levels of sophistication that are also connected to cloud networks with data, is available and analysed 24 hour a day.