In part one of this feature, Warren Smith outlined two high-tech manufacturing developments that are threatening to disrupt the industry: the proliferation of affordable robots and 3-D printing.

In this second installment, he takes on the IT side of manufacturing technology with new insights into embedded software and small parts, the connected product and analytics and data management.

More than any other development, these trends underscore Smith's believe that "the age of the 'Industrial Internet' has arrived and to be successful, companies will need to change the way they do business in the future."

 

Embedded Software & Smart Parts

The saying that "parts are parts" is no longer a true statement.

The move to embed sensors in many parts to collect critical operational data is growing.

From personal experience, about 12 years ago I had the opportunity to work on a project to embed sensors in a typically mundane product -- a head gasket. The objective was to gain critical engine firing pressures and operating characteristics within the engine. The project, while it had merit, was stymied by the lack of technology we had within our "traditional" manufacturing processes. This is a typical example of why traditional parts fabricators believe that they are not ready to step up to embedding electronics and sensors into their products.

Changing the mindset of "hard parts" manufacturing from physical to software and information is a significant challenge. First, the parts manufacturer must fully understand the true operating value and characteristics of their part. For example, if their part is an axle, what are the characteristics and operating parameters that an axle provides that can be beneficial to the overall operation of the vehicle. Perhaps wheel load, torque levels and thermal conditions may be useful data that can be fed back to the vehicle to improve drivability.

Another scenario would be for an automotive air conditioning compressor. In the past, the direct driven mechanical compressor would run at some multiple of the engine speed. Today we may see an electronic inverter motor that can run at exactly the proper speed.

In order to accomplish this -- significant amounts of electronic components and embedded logic is needed.

The embedded logic is the part that can be the most challenging. In a similar process to 3-D manufacturing, the embedded logic comes directly from engineering design to manufacturing, making the intellectual properly vital.

Controlling the process from design to production is essential. If field updates are needed, the ability to provide updates online, electronically would add direct value to the end user. If that compressor needs to be placed in multiple vehicles, the programming may need to be done on the vehicle assembly line. If programming is required on the assembly line by the customer, there must be controls in place to insure quality.

One ramification for "smart parts" is the growth of royalties for embedded technology. If your company is the provider of that embedded technology, ensuring that you are getting paid properly for your technology is a concern. If you are the consumer of a product with royalties are due for use, ensuring that you are able to manage those payments is the counter perspective. In years past, even for large companies, royalty payments could be handled with spreadsheets. Today that would impose a significant effort and not be realistic in many cases.

As a company looks to create more value in their product, embedding software and sensors can provide tremendous opportunity. In addition to added value, it can also lock a customer into the technology; even if others produce the 'hard parts,' royalty value can bring added revenue. These embedded technologies will require business-operating software that can handle this new environment featuring 'smart parts', beyond scheduling for machines on the shop floor and the shipping of parts out the door.