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How IoT in the supply chain can help manufacturers

Manufacturing companies have learned the hard way that supply chains are vulnerable to disruption from a number of factors. Meaningful, actionable data collected from IoT in the supply chain powered by a private cellular network, can help firms not only meet the current challenges but prepare for the next one.

Manufacturing Practice Leader, Ericsson North America

How IoT in the supply chain can help manufacturers

Manufacturing Practice Leader, Ericsson North America

Manufacturing Practice Leader, Ericsson North America

Everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to global instability has companies across sectors racing to shore up supply chains. The lessons learned over the past several years have been hard ones – and there’s no going back to the way things used to be. More visibility, along with more transparency, more security and more redundancies will all be top of mind for businesses who rely on a complex network of suppliers to bring their products and services to life.

Key to that visibility is a steady stream of real-time data. Companies need a strong ecosystem of connected devices to gather that data, and a reliable, fast and secure communications network to store, process and analyze it, providing instant, actionable insight. The Internet of Things (IoT), particularly Massive IoT applications, as well as a subset of the broader IoT referred to as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), will be critical for manufacturers moving forward. Implementing IoT in the supply chain can be a transformative tool. Combined with private cellular networks as the engines that power this data gathering ecosystem, supply chain can be leaner, more efficient and more resilient.

Data-driven solutions help manufacturers manage the supply chain

This transformation will depend on an advanced network of sensors and other monitoring devices, as well as automated small robots like automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and drones.

It’s important to note that there are two distinct IoT infrastructures supporting these technologies – fitting the right system and the right network to the task will be crucial. Massive IoT involves wider area use cases and simpler devices like temperature sensors.

For instance, one of the most common IoT supply chain solutions monitors temperature inside vehicles transporting goods, tracking in real time things like pressure, humidity, and more. IoT devices cannot only monitor but also trigger automatic condition adjustments to protect the integrity of what’s being transported.

Industrial IoT is generally a network of smaller, smart devices that connect to form systems that can collect, exchange and analyze data in real time in settings like a warehouse or factory.

For example, at Ericsson’s 5G smart factory in Lewisville, Texas, a digital asset tracking solution integrates with factory floor sensors to track critical assets’ location, condition and status, providing real-time visibility of finished goods into the production floor. The program has delivered a 2-5 percent cost avoidance on indirect spare purchase items – critical during the current supply chain shortage.

Asset condition monitoring is another key area for manufacturers as global supply chain issues make obtaining spare parts more difficult. These programs can make predictive maintenance more effective, by collecting data to determine exactly when maintenance needs to be performed. Ericsson’s research has found that manufacturers can reduce the number of spare parts required by 10 percent with asset condition monitoring.

Together, utilizing solutions like these – all driven by a combination of ecosystems and enabled by robust cellular connectivity – manufacturers can leverage IoT in the supply chain to drive optimization  and unlock new possibilities for efficiency and security.

To enable IoT solutions, you need a platform

These are all examples what an IoT network can do for a manufacturing operation, but there are a lot of factors that go into creating an IoT management platform to enable all these capabilities.

You need the devices to start and stay operational. You need a connectivity solution. You need to have data normalization to get all that data into a data warehouse or data lake, and you need to be able to have devices with different protocols communicate over your 4G or 5G platform. You need application development capabilities. Then, to manage and to get the most out of all those connected devices, you need an IoT platform.

This platform is a mediator between the physical devices on your network, and can help produce actionable insights from all the data being collected. Ericsson IoT Accelerator, for example, is one core network that provides complete visibility and control of Massive IoT devices throughout their entire lifecycle, no matter where in the world they are located. And a Critical IoT platform addresses the need to for low latency and high reliability in industrial control and automation scenarios.

You also need people - analysts who can make informed decisions based on the data, and help develop algorithms to make the best use of everything your IoT network is collecting. This combination of data gathering an analysis is how to best prepare operations against any supply chain disruptions.

Private cellular networks are the enabler of these IoT platforms, providing connectivity that delivers visibility, traceability and real-time insights to manufacturing. Companies are increasingly seeing the value in these networks in making businesses more agile, introducing high-speed connectivity, low latency, and superior performance, especially in high device density environments. While these networks today mostly operate on 4G LTE, most are 5G-ready and can be upgraded seamlessly when the firm is ready.

What’s next for supply chain visibility?

Existing IoT-supported solutions are helping companies better track the condition and status of inventory in their warehouses and factories, and helping them track maintenance needs in real time to reduce the need for spare parts. However, to truly make the supply chain as efficient and resilient as possible, the data those IoT devices are collecting needs to be shared.

Many companies have excellent visibility into their own operations, such as e-commerce companies that can share information with the end customer – things like where a package is, when it’s going to be delivered, etc. The next step is to extend that visibility outside one company’s building to the broader supply chain, especially on the supplier side as parts and equipment come into the facility. In addition to more closely managing materials, this will help companies with fraud prevention as it will be easier to pinpoint the origin and authenticity of goods.

IoT in the supply chain can deliver even more value for manufacturers when different IoT systems work together to give broader insight across the entire supply chain. Elements of the chain from outside the factory – such as supplies being transported by a trucking company – can be monitored by a Massive IoT solution and then seamlessly transferred to an IIoT system once it reaches the facility.

There are two major obstacles that will have to be overcome before this becomes widespread, trust and the technology. As cloud-based solutions become more available and practical, visibility into the broader supply chain will become more technically feasible. And third-party IoT platforms can be a solution to trust issues because sharing of data will be on equal terms between, for example, a trucking company and a manufacturing plant.

All of this will lead manufacturing firms to the next stage in digitalization – predictability. Understanding where materials are in the supply chain will help companies make real-time adjustments, with a better understanding of where there are delays and shortages. For example, one of the major supply chain-related disruptions for US consumers recently has been the lack of chips in auto manufacturing. Those kinds of issues are more easily navigated when there is more visibility into the supply chain. And on the flip side of this, that same insight can help factories configured for flexibility manufacturing (another technology driven by cellular connectivity) be more efficient and responsive to the availability of materials and consumer demand. For example, a Harley Davidson factory in Pennsylvania equipped all machinery and logistics devices with sensors and location awareness through IoT – and as a result, cut the lead time to produce custom motorcycles from 21 days to six hours.

The common thread in all of these solutions is an IoT solution, powered by the limitless connectivity of strong 4G/LTE or 5G cellular connectivity solution. The past two years have shown manufacturers just how vulnerable their supply chains are. Getting control over that involves visibility and transparently that can only be driven by quality, meaningful data, enabled by IoT in the supply chain.

Which use cases should you implement first in your smart factory?

Join us at 2:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday, August 9, 2022 to learn how Ericsson’s smart factory team approached this very question when building their own facility in Lewisville, Texas, powered by a private 5G network. Topics discussed will include the ‘build vs buy’ decision-making process, vendor selection and the agile work methods that enabled 15 successful initial implementations.

Register now

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