“Whether your product is steel or computers, or paper or automobiles, the true lifeblood of your business is not things. It’s information …”

Everywhere, it seems, anyone interested in manufacturing is talking about the Internet of Things, the cloud, data analytics and a host of other technologies that herald a new industrial revolution. Predictions for the number of connected devices soar into the billions, warn of the dire consequences that await those too slow to act, and tell of the competitive advantage—and untold riches—that await early adopters.

For many executives, the sense of déjà vu is palpable—and for good reason. The quote that opens this column was published in 1997, in the heat of the Internet boom. IndustryWeek magazines of that era are filled with the possibilities of leveraging IT and the Internet to, among other things, connect “value streams from the supplier’s supplier to the customer’s customer.”

For others, the vision described has been so abstract (connect everything?), or so seemingly over-the-top (exabytes of data?) that they stumble on the question: Where to begin?

However, we’re finally starting to learn more about the truth of the matter: how real companies have begun to leverage the latest technology, along with the challenges they’ve overcome and the benefits they’ve achieved—and delivered to their customers. 

In 2013, Scott Eckert, president and CEO of Rethink Robotics, demonstrated the new thinking that comes with connectivity on the plant floor when he announced a downloadable upgrade to the company’s Baxter robot. “Baxter is a unique, upgradable software platform, and the robot’s capabilities will continue to evolve to help manufacturers increase their overall efficiency…”

Baxter’s not a robot, or a piece of industrial equipment. It’s a software platform that can be upgraded just like your PC.

Baxter’s not a robot, or a piece of industrial equipment. It’s a software platform that can be upgraded just like your PC.

In November, Mark Fields, CEO of Ford Motor Corp., the leader of an earlier industrial revolution, described a similar approach in the consumer world. With the launch of Sync Connect and the introduction of the 2017 Ford Escape, he declared: “Sync Connect will serve as the platform to offer over-the-air updates, allowing us to go beyond the infotainment system… [to] updating other parts of the vehicle like the engine or driver-assist technologies.”

Meanwhile, Fanuc  Corp. leverages a “highly secure hybrid cloud” to help it keep tabs on its customers’ robots. “It has completely changed our go-to-business model,” declared Rick Schneider, president and CEO of FANUC America Corp., at the recent Rockwell Automation Forum. The capability enables FANUC to help its customers more efficiently run the robots and avoid downtime.

As well, notes Cisco, Fanuc’s approach is an example of how manufacturers can make the transition to service-oriented revenue models that promise significant growth over a product-oriented model.

No less impressive, many companies are leveraging interconnectivity to improve their own factory productivity, the factory-floor blocking and tackling of reducing downtime, cutting costs, reducing cycle time, improving OEE, etc.

As in the ’90s, we’ve come to that sweet spot, where early adopters are sharing specific stories of what implementing the latest technology can do. The results are clear: IoT, the cloud, data analytics and related technologies have the potential to redefine the business of manufacturing.