IIoT becomes ubiquitous

More and more people become familiar with the term “Industrial IoT (IIoT)” and “smart factory” these days. Its potential to transform manufacturing is increasingly recognized. The question today is “when” machines and devices would be connected to the Internet, rather than “if”.

Many companies in Japan, however, appear to be still struggling to find an answer to a very simple question – “what you want to do by connecting a factory to the Internet?” Connecting your devices and machines to the Internet is not a goal per se. It is a means to achieve something, but there are many examples in Japan in which connecting devices has become a purpose. Now, it is time that Japanese manufacturing industry become more serious about more important question, that is, how to improve productivity through IIoT.

AI and IIoT

Application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies, deep learning and machine learning are on the rise. Some expects that these technologies help improve factory’s productivity. It is of course a right approach to try to improve factory’s operation through AI-related technologies. According to experts in Europe familiar with this matter, however, AI will be most useful in around 20% of the entire IIoT applications. For example, AI will be very effective in detecting abnormality from the vibrating sound of motors. But most impacts to be created from IIoT can be achieved without AI. Indeed, one of the characteristics of IIoT is that it has greater impacts in areas outside AI.

Galapagos syndrome of Japan’s manufacturing

Availability of highly skilled engineers and technicians is one of the key strengths of Japan’s manufacturing. However, this very strength may have hampered the introduction or the use of automation technology. In Japan, competent workers with degrees work on the production line and regularly manage factory’s operation. When a minor stoppage occurs, they immediately fix the problem and restart the operation. When a bottle falls over on the conveyor belt, a worker rushes to the site, places it back to the correct position and restart the belt. Likewise, Japanese workers do exactly what needs to be done. In the production of medicine, it is quite important to put right set of chemicals at the right time and at the right temperature. Japanese professional workers do this kind of work without errors and Japanese manufacturing system is built based on the assumption that workers are very high skilled and reliable. In other words, it is highly dependent of the skilled workers.

In overseas factories, the assumption is different. Outside Japan, production system does not depend of the skill of the workers. When minor stoppage happens, information of the error is immediately sent to the central control center. The cause of the problem is identified at the center and worker is sent to the site to fix the problem. The instruction to fix the problem will be shown on the tablet device given to the worker. Unlike Japan’s factory, the system is not dependent on workers’ skill. A mechanism to prevent human errors is also built in the factory’s operating system. For example, production of medicine is divided into multiple stage and it only moves on to the next stage when operation for a particular stage is completed precisely in accordance with the instruction (e.g. amount of chemicals, temperature).

Traceability is another key element of IIoT. In smart factory, information in terms of who did what at what time can be tracked and easily checked. IIoT is critical in designing a factory that does not depend on the skilled workers. Compared with this approach, Japan’s manufacturing is trying to make its operation smarter from the opposite concept.

IIoT Times uses the term “Galapagos Syndrome of Japan’s Manufacturing” to describe the situation where manufacturing is dependent of the skill of workers. Of course, availability of skilled worker itself is not a bad thing. This is the core of Japan’s competitiveness and driver of the Japan’s growth in the past decades. Having said that, a paradigm shift is needed to adopt and familiarize with the concepts of IIoT and Smart Factory. The ideas that are taken for granted in the past may not be applicable in today’s rapidly changing world. The key to make this paradigm shift is digitization of the production (IIoT, paperless, and hierarchization to tools), or in other words, integration of humans and systems.

Basic concept of IIoT

The figure 1 below shows the best possible hierarchical layout of different tools.

Figure 1 Hierarchy of tool chains for IIoT (click to enlarge)  Source: Links
In Japan… / Configure manually, record in hand-writing

In this system, Enterprise Resources Planning (ERP) system at the top of the hierarchy sends instruction in terms of what to be manufactured by when and how much. Based on the instruction, Manufacturing Execution System (MES) prepares operating instruction which provides details of the materials to be prepared and how production should be done.  

In Japan, such instruction is normally printed on paper and workers configure the automated production machine as per the paper instruction. Also, workers in Japan’s factory tend to record their work log in handwriting. In Japan, the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) layer is largely missing, and this part is covered by humans.

Horizontal and vertical integration

Japan’s manufacturing has achieved very high level of automation at Programmable Logic Controller (PLC)-level, which is the lower hierarchy. Although horizontal integration at PLC level is quite advanced in Japan, vertical integration across different layers is limited. Human intervention is necessary between MES and PLC, and in many cases, it is one in quite an old-fashioned manner with papers and pens. However, a factory does not become smart when it is integrated only horizontally. Vertical integration is also necessary to fully capture the benefits of IIoT.

Without vertical integration, workers tend to focus on the tasks that they are assigned, which typically cover three or so devices. Vertical integration can broaden the vision of the worker as they can see the entire production process in the factory beyond the limited zone of their responsibility. When minor stoppage occurs, every worker can check what happens with the tablet. The information regarding who should go to fix the problem and what kind of tools is needed to fix the problem can also be shared. This kind of information help change the mindset of the workers, which in turn improve the productivity of the factory as a whole.

Vertical integration also contributes to enhancing product quality and compliance. When all the activities are automatically recorded digitally, no one can fabricate the data later on. Workers can no longer pretend to have done what they didn’t do, or vice versa. In pharmaceutical industry, audit trail (thorough management of activity log) is one of the most important matters in regulatory compliance, and India is more advanced than Japan in this area.  

IIoT, especially vertical integration and digitization of factories, has numerous advantages. More efforts are needed for Japan’s manufacturing to capture full benefits of it.