Picture the scene. It’s 6:30am on a cold, dark Monday in mid-January, and your alarm clock goes off. As you roll out of bed, your Amazon Alexa warns you that it’s icy outside. Bugger. It’ll take five minutes to scrape all the ice off the car. Luckily, your car has already started defrosting its windscreen. Meanwhile, the coffee machine is busy making you a double-shot skinny caramel macchiato, just the way you like it.
Over breakfast your phone reminds you that you have an important management meeting at 10am, and syncs with your office PC to update that presentation you finished last night. Before you even get out of the shower, your house and appliances have organised your day. Once you leave home and head to the office, the smart thermostat recognises the house is empty, and turns the heating off for the day.
A decade ago, all this would have sounded like science fiction. However, in recent years, the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) has begun to revolutionise the way we live our lives. Connected devices are promising to automate many of the mundane tasks we take for granted – theoretically leaving us with more time to do other things.
Industry slow on the uptake
For industry, and in particular manufacturers, however, this world can seem a long way off. John Fryer is the senior director for industry solutions at Stratus Technologies, a global-leading provider of failure-prevention and industrial automation systems. He says that automation and IoT have been mooted as the ‘next big thing’ for manufacturing for some time, without much progress. “If you roll back the clock a couple of years, there was a lot of talk about the cloud, machine sensors, analytics and a brilliant, data-driven industrial world,” he explains. “That doesn’t seem to have happened yet. The conversation is still around IoT, but has moved towards things like cyber security, amid concerns around storing data in the cloud.”
Added to this, says Fryer, is the age-old problem of a reticence to change. “We still very regularly see manufacturing sites that involve what I would call a ‘traditional’ control environment, where one PC or server is running one application on very old software,” he explains. “People just don’t feel the need to change. They are also finding it very hard to justify their return on investment when it comes to automation and IoT – they spend all this money on sensors and so on, but where is the return? Automation is a very ROI-driven industry, because it has such an impact on production.
“There are currently very few empirical studies that show the benefits of investing in automation, and that’s putting people off taking the plunge. Sometimes it needs a company, or even an individual within a company, to take a leap of faith and spend millions of pounds on
a machine-learning system. We then need to see organisations share their successes.”
A barrier to adoption
Another factor that is putting people off investing in automation and IoT, says Fryer, is a lack of relevant skills, especially at the shopfloor level.
“A lot of the people physically running the networks are in their 40s and 50s,” he explains. “They know how to run the automation side of things, and how to keep the production line running, but they’re not necessarily skilled in the IT, and don’t particularly have the desire to learn about it. That creates a barrier to adoption. If they’re pushed to upgrade their network, they don’t have the skills and have to call in an external IT specialist.”
To combat this, continues Fryer, industry needs to reach out to younger people, who have grown up with smartphones and connected technology, and have an “almost intuitive ability” with computers.
“Not only this, but the whole image of the industry needs to change,” he says. “A lot of factories are running very low on staff, which, when added to an ever-aging workforce, causes a major issue. Manufacturers are starting to wake up to that, so have to find ways to make
the industry more attractive to enter.”
This is having a knock-on effect on the uptake of technology, warns Fryer. A stretched workforce means staff are often pulled from
one job to another, or company priorities will change, meaning new projects fall by the wayside, if they are picked up at all. “Companies mustn’t be scared of letting people try things,” he says. “Everyone through the management chain has to buy into an idea – we’re going to trial this, so let’s give it time to see what the results are and whether it makes sense to do it on a wider scale. The mentality has to change through all the layers of management.”
Progress doesn’t come for free, but it’s getting better
Seeing a return on investment is, as mentioned earlier, the key driver behind automation. Fryer admits that the high price of automation technology is putting many manufacturers off even considering it.
However, he says, that is starting to change. “In all industries, it will be the biggest companies that will be able to make the initial investment, and have the cash to dedicate whole teams of people to looking at how to maximise the potential of IoT and automation,” he says. “Through their experimentation, we’ll get to the stage where the technology becomes easy to consume. That’s the main thing other, smaller companies will be looking for – making it so easy that they don’t have to hire a team of specialists to work on it for a couple of years before they see any return.”
Fryer makes a prediction that this will happen in the next three or four years. “Over time, these big automation projects will become more time- and cost-efficient,” he says. “Suddenly we’ll reach a critical mass, and SMEs will start to get on board, and the IoT, automation-heavy future we’ve been talking about won’t seem like a big, impossible dream any more. It does mean that people will have to make investments in their automation technology – but, of course, progress doesn’t come for free.”
Fryer ends on a word of advice for anyone looking to invest in automation in the near future. “If you want to apply IoT on your site, treat it as a long-term project: hand-craft it, spend money on it and make sure you do it in such a way that it will benefit your site. It may seem expensive and time-consuming, but that will get better.
“Look back 15 or 20 years, and the long-winded process of installing a new application on your laptop: put in disc after disc and wait while they slowly installed. Nowadays, you can just download the application you want from the internet in a matter of minutes. With automation, while we’re still in the time-consuming stage, we’re beginning to cross over to the other side and make the technology both cheaper and easier to consume.”