The Industrial Internet of Things refers to the way that smart machines can be connected to each other in a wider network where information from one machine can affect the output of another. In the context of supply chains, this can mean that tasks that are dependent on the interaction of two or more machines can be automated, thereby taking human error out of the equation.
The last few years have highlighted many clues about the direction in which supply chains are likely to evolve, with some major standout themes being the need for more overall visibility, and improved resiliency. The drivers behind these trends might be diverse, but aside from purely pragmatic operational considerations, environmental concerns are taking centre stage.
Smarter route to sustainability
Sustainability is rapidly becoming a key ingredient for business success, with one recent US survey finding that brands that advocate for sustainability grow 5.6 times faster than brands that do not. Smart technology can play a central role in enabling more eco-friendly supply chains, in a host of ways. By improving the efficiency of logistics across the board, both cost savings and ecological gains can be made in tandem, for example by minimising packaging to enable more streamlined transport, most efficient routing for final mile vehicles to minimise fuel use, and detailed tracking of assets to ensure that resources are available exactly where and when needed.
Managing risk and the environment
Supply chain visibility offers significant benefits across the board in terms of efficiency and cost savings, but also can deliver less immediately tangible business improvements too. One recent example was a UK retailer that lost £1bn in 24 hours due to a lack of visibility across its supply chain, thanks to a 40% share price collapse following allegations of improper working practices by one supplier.
The firm said it would mitigate the issue by launching an immediate independent review of its UK supply chain and committing £10 million to uncover supply chain malpractice. A cost commitment that could potentially have been avoided by implementing a more stringent end-to-end approved supplier process that increased transparency and visibility, such as that offered by a smart supply chain management platform solution.
IIoT-based supply chain management platforms offer reliable data management and visualisation capabilities that can be used to cement end-to-end visibility processes, enabling end customers to manage risk in a variety of forms, such as point-of-origin attribution and tracking in a vast range of industries from fishing to precious metals and gemstones, clothing to industrial technology.
Predictive maintenance delivers for all
Another key derivative from the rise of smarter, IIoT supply chains is predictive maintenance, a concept that might seem more at home in a car factory or heavy industrial process but is increasingly coming to bear on the wider supply chain. Predictive maintenance in fact is one of the biggest IIoT adoption drivers around, with a recent report placing it front and centre of a $13.7 billion IIoT platform industry by 2026. According to analyst firm MarketsandMarkets, the IIoT platform industry will grow to that figure from a starting point of $6.0 billion in 2020, a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 14.8%.
Not only can predictive maintenance deliver more reliable factory delivery schedules, because uptime has not been unexpectedly degraded by component failure, but it is also increasingly being deployed within traditional logistics arenas such as shipping. Technology companies are creating bespoke IIoT packages to monitor equipment and systems in real-time aboard ships, creating ‘Optimised Maintenance agreements’ that ship operators can sign up to. Key components such as engines are then predictively managed, with historical data mined with artificial intelligence (AI) for anomalous events and compared with real-time data from a network of onboard sensors, sometimes globally networked with 5G, for example.
A recent deal along these lines saw Greece-based Latsco LNG Marine Management sign up to a five-year Optimised Maintenance agreement with technology group Wärtsilä, covering the main engines for two large LNG Carriers, the ‘Hellas Diana’ and the ‘Hellas Athina’. Wärtsilä claims that its predictive maintenance packages can help cut unplanned maintenance by as much as 50%, while at the same time reducing fuel consumption and emissions by 3 to 4%.
Towards true circularity and net zero
Perhaps most interestingly from a long-term ecological viewpoint, smart technology holds out the possibility of building genuinely circular, zero-waste supply chains. By optimising and tracking all elements in the supply chain, efficiencies can be gained that are still as of yet unexploited. One example is reusing packaging in an effective manner, reducing end-user waste to near-zero, and another step is to offer point-of-delivery recycling of old parts, materials or products that are being replaced. Not only does this type of strategy reduce collateral supply chain waste, but also enables more specialised and effective recycling of specialised parts and resources.
Another key trend from the last couple of years is the increased urgency behind environmental initiatives, from government-level guidelines and legislation to consumer and business awareness, and the need for this is now clearly recognised. Smart technologies and IIoT offer at least part of the overall solution to achieving cleaner, greener supply chains in the present, as well as the immediate future – an opportunity not to be missed by any business in the value chain.
About the Author
Martin Keenan is the technical director at Avnet Abacus, which assists and informs design engineers in the latest technological challenges, including designing for Industry 4.0 and Industrial IoT manufacturing.