From the year 2000 onwards RFID technology started to significantly impact manufacturing efficiency. M2M represents the next step, AMS reports

RFID is fantastic at providing basic information, but due to the need for all items to be scanned individually it also creates a bottleneck at control points. However, the latest M2M (Machine-to-Machine) technology enables updates to happen simultaneously, facilitating the flow of limitless information from anywhere through wirelessly connected sensors. This means it has the ability to provide detailed asset tracking information about the machines or parts in a production line to ensure optimal production.

This means you can check not only where an item is, but also that it’s being stored in the correct environment to prevent damage.

In this way, manufacturers can dramatically improve quality control and reduce waste, as well as implementing genuine ‘just-in-time’ (JIT) ordering processes which reduce the need for large levels of overstock in warehouses. It also means asset tracking doesn’t end when the product is built.

“For example, when a car leaves the factory, its performance can continue to be monitored and problems automatically reported to the manufacturer,” says Richard Cornish, global M2M strategy and industry development manager at Vodafone. “The manufacturer is then able to take pro-active measures to identify the source of the problem in the production line. This increased level of visibility could spell the end of mass product recalls.

“It also allows real-time status reports from key plant equipment using sensors that can measure temperature, pressure or any other variable to ensure it is running effectively and pre-empt faults. This means reduced downtime and more effective maintenance. But this is just the start as M2M is able to include not just production, but also all the supporting processes such as worker safety, security, building management. Connected sensors, such as smart meters, can also be used to monitor energy usage, allowing companies to reduce consumption.”

There is little doubt that M2M takes the revolution started by RFID to the next level. “While we’re in the early stages of M2M in the automotive manufacturing sector, the benefits are already apparent and prospects extremely promising, especially given the high value nature of the machinery and products involved,” enthuses Cornish.

Making the move forward

According to Machina Research, the overall market for M2M technologies in the manufacturing and supply chain sector was $7 billion in 2012, expected to reach $24 billion in 2022.

There have been some barriers to M2M growth though.

RFID solutions are simple and have achieved ubiquity in the industry, making some manufacturers less willing to take the step up to M2M. However, RFID provides limited insight, requires more manual processes and typically operates on a closed, single service-provider model.

“M2M revolutionises the ERP model,” states Cornish. “It creates a simple flow of real-time data about every aspect of the manufacturing process which can then be sent to best of breed service providers for asset tracking, machine automation, logistics, or energy data management.”

Another important drawback has been the higher price of M2M compared with RFID. However, the cost of the three key elements – the SIM card, the battery and the modem – is falling, says Cornish. “These costs are reducing with the advent of disposable SIMs, reconditionable batteries and modular modems that can be swapped between devices.

This means that M2M will move from being viable for the highest value assets to a wider range of everyday devices and parts.”

For manufacturing OEMs providing highly specialised tools for the production line, M2M allows them to monitor all facets of their equipment remotely to improve efficiency, pre-empt faults and optimise maintenance visits to ensure minimal downtime. Ultimately, by getting a detailed insight into their products and how they are being used, they can optimise upgrades and future products.

“Suppliers can optimise their supply chain with intelligent asset tracking so they never risk going out of stock or waste resources storing excess products,” Cornish continues.

“It also means that assets are not only tracked so they are not stolen, their environment is also monitored to prevent damage. Suppliers can also synchronise their delivery processes with the manufacturer’s ordering requirements so that products don’t just arrive at the right time, they are also packed correctly to facilitate assembly.”

Continuous production

Problems on the assembly line can stall production, extending time to market. M2M technology keeps production running continuously by optimising the supply chain so stock is always available and eliminating equipment failure by enabling remote monitoring to pick up potential problems before they occur. “These monitoring devices in production machinery can detect problems, divert or reschedule production, order replacement parts, and schedule an appropriate window for ‘just-in-time’ servicing to minimise disruption,” Cornish says. “By providing detailed insight into all aspects of the production line, including all the stock coming in, manufacturers can genuinely adopt the JIT delivery approach.

“This insight continues after the product has left the production line – allowing future insights to be fed back to further refine the process. Take the automotive industry as an example; our 2013 Adoption Barometer Report found that it was adopting M2M faster than any other industry.

This means vast quantities of data around various vehicle faults, like brake failures and real world performance to do with anything from engines over heating to the consumption of petrol, can be fed back into the manufacturing production line process.”

This tracking of both the vehicle and the manufacturing process creates a genealogy of each vehicle so that when problems occur, the original source production line can be identified as well as the batch of components.

Growth in use and application

According to Cornish, implementations will grow and there are three driving forces converging to trigger mass M2M adoption in automotive manufacturing. The lead factor is created by more vehicles being connected and providing real world vehicle and component performance data. This data can be fed into the design and production processes enabling a shorter product lifecycle.

The second is the aftermarket adoption of M2M by machine manufacturers to offer better operational efficiency.

The third is that these same machine manufacturers will sell fewer of these large complex machines if they operate for longer and more efficiently. “Therefore they have to move to a service-based model to generate future revenue streams,” Cornish adds. “By connecting a tool or part, you gain valuable intelligence. As big data analytics continues to take off then this intelligence will pay ever increasing dividends.”

Factory installations will be very similar to RFID except without the control points required for scanning at point of entry into the facility and as goods navigate separate stages of production. The technology will also enter high value machine tools to prevent downtime and optimise maintenance procedures. “The key difference M2M will make is to link ever distant and disparate business processes, driving efficiency and value through the entire production system and its supporting infrastructure,” Cornish says.

“This will affect not only the production line and its inputs of components and manpower, but also the environmental impact as wasteful processes and redundant assets are redeployed.”

Greater and broader control

M2M is also at the heart of intelligent energy management. With energy prices rising and governments focused on reducing industrial carbon emissions, it has never been more important to be in control of energy use. M2M can help reduce overall consumption and regulatory compliance through energy data management (EDM). EDM uses smart meters installed at sites to track the energy usage of factory assets, warehouse systems, heating and lighting in near real-time. Management teams can use this data to see where energy is being wasted and optimise its usage – for instance by scheduling energy-intensive activities at cheaper times of the day, or optimising processes and upgrading facilities.

The supply chain is another area where M2M has enjoyed major early adoption. Needless to say, in the automotive sector products are of high value and are highly vulnerable to damage or theft when in transit between factories, warehouses and customers.

“M2M trackers and sensors can be installed on anything from individual products to containers or cages in order to monitor factors such as their location, motion, vibration, temperature, humidity and light levels when products are in transit,” Cornish continues. “The devices will alert your security or quality control team if products or their containers have been tampered with, stolen or where environmental parameters have been exceeded so you can investigate immediately.

“Where automotive manufacturers handle logistics and fleet management in house, M2M can be used to significantly optimise the operation. For example, vehicles that are connected to central dispatch can have their routes adapted in real time to minimise traffic delays and lower fuel costs. Also, the quality of the driving can be remotely monitored to minimise the likelihood of accidents and to lower insurance ,and the use of sensors in the vehicles means that potential issues can be highlighted before breakdowns occur.”