Change is coming, and no business can afford to be a laggard. By Fred Geck and Seth Sternberg

According to a survey of technology industry business leaders globally by KMPG, the Internet of Things (IoT) is among the top technologies to have the greatest impact in driving business transformation. Several reports suggest much of that growth will be at the expense of older technologies and new revolutionary shifts will force entire industries to slide into obsolescence. Change is coming, and it is imperative that businesses continue to advance and shift with the tides. In the manufacturing automation business, we are already seeing the desire to seek advancement and shift the industry, especially when it comes to capitalizing on the potential for cost savings, productivity improvements, and safety.

IoT manufacturing
IoT sensor and networking technologies can deliver important economic benefits to the manufacturing industry. Utilizing these technologies to connect manufacturing floors, monitor equipment and ergonomics, and assess productivity can enable organizations to automate functions and monitor operations much more efficiently. IoT deployments have already started to take place within the manufacturing sector. For example, according to a recent survey by PwC, “35 per cent of US manufacturers are currently collecting and using data generated by smart sensors to enhance manufacturing/operating processes.”

The role of sensors
Within a factory environment, sensors are being added to equipment platforms such as large industrial robots to help with stabilization or monitoring. Developers are adding Inertial Measurement Units (IMU) with MEMS-based accelerometer and gyroscope sensors to gloves or other wearables to help with ergonomics and worker safety. IMUs are also used in Augmented Reality (AR) headsets that will aid maintenance personnel and trades in equipment upgrades and maintenance. Warehouse robots are using Attitude and Heading Reference Systems (AHRS) and IMUs along with cameras and other sensors to efficiently navigate the environment. Together with complex networking and traffic management software, the factory environment is kept safe, efficient, and cost effective.

Factory automation engineers need the metrics produced by these sensor-enabled devices to effectively do their job, but it is not efficient for the engineers to do the computations themselves. Today factories are utilizing higher cost devices, where an IMU may run $1000, to provide sensor data to industrial monitoring applications. However, the IoT revolution has delivered continuous technology evolutions and advancements to achieve more than just productivity improvements. Now, there are solutions that could provide the metrics at a lower cost, ultimately providing not just operational efficiency, but also cost efficiency.

For example, a low power AHRS/IMU module, such as the FSM300 from Hillcrest Labs, can provide the accurate heading and multi-axis sensor fusion required for demanding manufacturing applications as well as precise detection of motion, vibration, and magnetic field anomalies to enable tracking and monitoring of commercial equipment at a lower price than today’s industrial grade devices. Its high performance software allows the use of a small form factor sensor module to deliver the information that factory automation engineers need to efficiently do their jobs at a lower cost. This module includes a pre-17installed software library that allows for reduced development time of various IoT sensor systems.

Today’s application needs are more complex than ever. This complexity often means that multiple sensing technologies will need to be combined to meet manufacturing needs. An industrial monitoring system might combine environmental sensors, such as temperature and humidity, with motion sensors to determine when equipment needs maintenance. However, a more innovative system might fuse the environmental data with that of the accelerometer and gyroscope to provide additional stability to the motion data than the IMU could provide on its own. Similarly, an AHRS/IMU module may be combined with a LIDAR system to provide more stable and accurate position and heading data for a tool-delivery robot than the LIDAR could deliver alone.

The FSM300 could be used in a delivery robot along with a LIDAR sensor to efficiently navigate the factory floor and deliver material or tools throughout the enterprise. Additionally, any large motorized equipment could be monitored with arrays of these MEMS sensors that would indicate changes in performance or the need for maintenance before costly failures occur.

Not a replacement, but an improvement
Manufacturing will still need people. The role of the factory automation engineer will not become obsolete, but it may look completely different (and most likely for the better). Automated processes and systems will need individuals to design, program, interpret, and service them. The systems will enable automation engineers to do their jobs more efficiently, increase worker safety and potentially learn new skills to enable them to take on more challenging and rewarding opportunities.

Sensors in IoT applications can also improve safety for the factory workers. For example, in worker ergonomics, sensors can be used to monitor repetitive motions and identify if the worker is tired and needs a break from their work, or even worse if the person is at risk of sustaining some type of stress injury. Access to this type of data can ultimately improve factory workers’ wellness and job satisfaction.

There are numerous benefits and applications that can be hypothesized and realized with the IoT systems of tomorrow. However, one thing is certain – change is on its way, and if companies want to continue to succeed, they must continue to evolve.

Fred Geck and Seth Sternberg work at Hillcrest Labs. Hillcrest Labs, a subsidiary of InterDigital, Inc., is a leading global supplier of software, components and intellectual property to enable the intelligent use of sensors in consumer electronics and IoT devices. For more than ten years, Hillcrest’s Freespace® sensor processing technology has powered advanced motion controllers in a wide variety of products including Smart TV’s, set-top boxes, PC’s, and game consoles. Today, Hillcrest’s products are used in the development of devices in the virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), robotics, TV and motion remote control segments.