How IoT in the supply chain can help manufacturers

How IoT in the supply chain can help manufacturers

Everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to global instability has companies from all sectors racing to shore up supply chains. The lessons learned in recent years have been harsh, and there is no going back to the way things used to be. More visibility, along with more transparency, more security, and more redundancies will be top of mind for companies that rely on a complex network of vendors to bring their products and services to life.

The key to that visibility is a constant stream of real-time data. Businesses need a strong ecosystem of connected devices to collect that data, and a reliable, fast, and secure communications network to store, process, and analyze it, providing instant actionable insights. The Internet of Things (IoT), particularly massive IoT applications, as well as a subset of the broader IoT called the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), will be critical for manufacturers moving forward. The implementation of IoT in the supply chain can be a transformative tool. Combined with private cellular networks as the engines that drive this data collection ecosystem, the supply chain can be more agile, 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 small automated robots like automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and drones.

It is important to note that there are two different IoT infrastructures that support these technologies – matching the right system and the right network to the task will be crucial. Massive IoT involves broader area use cases and simpler devices like temperature sensors.

For example, one of the most common IoT supply chain solutions monitors the temperature inside vehicles carrying goods, tracking things like pressure, humidity, and more in real time. IoT devices can not only monitor, but also trigger automatic condition adjustments to protect the integrity of what is 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 environments such as a warehouse or factory.

For example, at Ericsson’s 5G smart factory in Lewisville, Texas, a digital asset tracking solution integrates with sensors on the factory floor to track the location, condition and status of critical assets, providing visibility into real time of finished products on the production floor. The program has avoided 2 to 5 percent of indirect replacement purchase item costs, which is critical during the current supply chain shortage.

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

Together, using solutions like these, all powered by a combination of ecosystems and enabled by robust cellular connectivity, manufacturers can harness 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 of what an IoT network can do for a manufacturing operation, but there are many factors that go into creating an IoT management platform to enable all of these capabilities.

You need devices to boot up and stay operational. You need a connectivity solution. You need to have data normalization to get all of that data into a data warehouse or data lake, and you need to be able to have devices with different protocols communicating over your 4G or 5G platform. You need application development skills. So to manage and 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 that is collected. Ericsson IoT Accelerator, for example, is a core network that provides complete visibility and control of Massive IoT devices throughout their entire lifecycle, no matter where they are in the world. And a Critical IoT platform addresses the need for low latency and high reliability in industrial control and automation scenarios.

You also need people: analysts who can make informed decisions based on data and help develop algorithms to make the best use of everything your IoT network collects. This combination of data collection and analysis is the best way to prepare operations against any supply chain disruption.

Private cellular networks are the enabler of these IoT platforms, providing connectivity that provides real-time visibility, traceability, and insights for manufacturing. Enterprises are increasingly seeing the value of 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 run on 4G LTE, most are 5G-ready and can be seamlessly upgraded when the carrier is ready.

What’s next for supply chain visibility?

Existing IoT-enabled solutions are helping businesses better track the condition and status of inventory in their warehouses and factories, and help them track maintenance needs in real time to reduce the need for replacement parts. However, for the supply chain to truly be as efficient and resilient as possible, the data that those IoT devices collect 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, such as where a package is, when it will be delivered, etc. The next step is to extend that visibility outside of a company building into the broader supply chain, especially on the supplier side as parts and equipment enter the facility. In addition to more closely managing materials, this will help companies prevent fraud as it will be easier to identify the origin and authenticity of products.

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

There are two big hurdles that will need to be overcome before this goes mainstream, trust and technology. As cloud-based solutions become more available and practical, broader supply chain visibility will become more technically feasible. And third-party IoT platforms can be a solution to trust issues because data exchange will take place on an equal basis between, say, a trucking company and a manufacturing plant.

All of this will take manufacturing companies to the next stage of digitization: predictability. Understanding where materials are in the supply chain will help companies make adjustments in real time, with a better understanding of where there are delays and shortages. For example, one of the major supply chain-related disruptions for American consumers recently has been a lack of chips in car manufacturing. Those kinds of problems are more easily resolved when there is more visibility into the supply chain. And on the other hand, that same information can help factories configured for flexible manufacturing (another technology powered by cellular connectivity) become more efficient and responsive to material availability and consumer demand. For example, a Harley Davidson factory in Pennsylvania equipped all machinery and logistics devices with sensors and location awareness via IoT, and as a result, reduce 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 unlimited connectivity of a strong 4G/LTE or 5G cellular connectivity solution. The last two years have shown manufacturers how vulnerable their supply chains are. Gaining control over that means visibility and transparency that can only be driven by quality, meaningful data enabled by IoT in the supply chain.

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