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Enhancing Efficiency and Insight

A new industrial revolution is changing how products are manufactured. From integrated logistics to maintenance planning, new developments will alter our understanding of how a factory looks.

Defining the Industrial Internet of Things

One of the most exciting developments over recent years has been the Internet of Things (IoT), the name given to the network of machines that collect and share data with each other. The IoT has been enabled by the introduction of fast internet, and more recently 5G wireless communication technology, which can handle the huge data transfer that is required.

For the first time, machines are using data to respond quickly to changing needs and conditions. The true potential of the IoT lies beyond the consumer market, and the factory environment offers exciting opportunities for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

The Advantage of the Smart Factory 

The smart factory uses the IIoT to create a facility where all activities, from logistics and supply chain to production and maintenance, are integrated into a single process. In the smart factory, all operations are centralized and each machine shares information with the wider network.

To gather this information, the factory floor will employ a huge number of sensors that monitor the operation of every machine. It is this data that makes the smart factory so powerful. It allows the manufacturer to respond to market demands and trends more quickly than traditional methods would allow. This increased agility and flexibility reduces time-to-market and gives manufacturers a competitive advantage. 

There are additional advantages provided by the gathering and sharing of data. The sensors employed at the device layer can provide real-time information about the status of equipment, identifying potential problems before they threaten the smooth running of the factory. Maintenance can be scheduled to minimise the amount of time that a machine is out of action. The result is a factory that can deliver high levels of efficiency and flexibility.

This will be further enhanced with the digital twin. A digital twin is a replica of the real device that exists in electronic form. It is a virtual model of the original machine that predicts how its physical equivalent will operate, allowing users to make decisions about repairs, scheduling, and predictive maintenance. 

Data Connectivity 

However, there are barriers to the fully connected smart factory. Unless a factory is brand new, most users will need to integrate existing machinery into a smart factory installation. This combination of the old and the new will mean that connectivity — and the use of advanced connector technology — will be vital to integrate the smart factory network.

The use of legacy equipment will be of greatest concern at the lowest operational level on the factory floor. While control layers have been using common computer technologies for many years, the connections between machines often still use industrial Bus-type systems. To create a truly connected factory, there is a need to interface between communications systems.

The harsh factory environment will also play a considerable role in device connectivity. The smart factory will collect data from a constellation of sensors deployed onto the factory floor. The industrial environment is unforgiving to sensitive electronics, and industrial machinery can be exposed to a range of conditions, from aggressive chemicals and moisture to harsh physical vibration and extremes of temperature.

With the growth of other new technologies such as renewable energy and microgeneration, there is even the requirement for data connectivity that extends beyond the confines of the factory wall. Equipment that is exposed to the elements will need to be connected into the IIoT for the smart factory to reach its potential. 

Designing for the Smart Factory

Selecting components for the smart factory will require the designer to be fully aware of the application. There is the need for an array of connectors to perform a range of tasks. Even with the growth of 5G wireless communication, all devices will need data connectors, from the largest machine to the smallest sensor.

The connectors designed for these roles will need to deliver high reliability even in the tough conditions of the factory. At the same time, the need for greater speeds means that high-performance connectors will become more important than ever, even in the world of wireless communications.

What does the engineer need to know?

The smart factory is delivering real change to the manufacturing sector, but it does bring challenges. The integration of high-speed communications and data sharing into the harsh conditions of the factory floor demands that the designer is familiar with all aspects of this application. The IIoT and the smart factory will require a combination of connectors that deliver rugged reliability, high performance, and ease of use.

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