Now Is the Time to Embrace the IIoT – Here’s What You Need to Do

Frank Antonysamy, Global leader for Cognizant's IoT and Engineering Services.

The COVID-19 crisis represents perhaps the greatest challenge to the way companies operate in living memory. Almost literally overnight, entire industries were shut down and production abruptly halted or curtailed, as governments across the world implemented "social distancing" rules that limited the number of people who could be together in a single place. Though companies in the service sector may be able to transition with minimal disruption to an at-home workforce and business model, manufacturing firms have seen operations shuttered or cut back. The U.S. is seeing the biggest shutdown of factories since World War II, with industries from aerospace to automakers being impacted. Whether the COVID-19 crisis lasts for a short or long time, it is clear that global manufacturing is being disrupted - and what typically follows disruption is a transformation of business models and ways of operating.

As manufacturers re-structure operations to try to keep some factories afloat while complying with social distancing, they are realizing that they need a model which creates more flexibility to move as much of the business as possible away from physical locations, a model increasingly being made feasible by the IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things). Whereas the technology underpinning the increased connectivity of devices and ability to gather data has generally been applied in the consumer sphere as the IoT, manufacturers have an opportunity to conduct a once-in-a-generation upgrade of how their managers and workers coordinate, using connected devices to keep assembly lines humming even while all or most employees are far from the factory floor. The technology allowing for remote operations exists; the major barriers to progress are that (A) many companies have not laid the foundations for building on it, (B) they lack enterprise-wide buy-in and (C) they haven't made the final step toward using artificial intelligence (AI) to automate key components of production.

Firms that grasp these challenges - and the solutions to overcoming them - will be able to not only weather the current crisis but gain a competitive advantage in the IIoT sphere after the COVID-19 shutdown ends. For that to happen, companies need to do the following:
(1) Build a solid foundation for expanding use of the IIoT: This first step entails developing a strategy that precedes the technology investments. The technology exists but is only as useful as a company's leaders choose to make it; a comprehensive strategy for implementing the IIoT across the enterprise, gleaning valuable data and developing a partnership ecosystem to get the missing pieces of the puzzle are is key.

(2) Make the strategy and goals cross-functional: Too often, companies launch IIoT pilots and then fail to move beyond square one because there wasn't an obvious return on investment. But the benefits of the IIoT spill over to multiple departments, not just the one where the pilot originates, and so buy-in from operations, engineering, IT and field service teams is essential to measuring success and figuring out what pays off and what doesn't yield results.

(3) Turn data into action: Just as the technology is less-than-useful without a strategy, the data that connected devices gather and provide to business leaders serves little purpose if a company doesn't use AI or machine learning to either automate some operations or enhance managers' line of sight into potential problems in assembly. This is the most important step from the perspective of COVID-19 and the transition to remote working, as it can allow operations to continue unimpeded while people miles away from the factory can be alerted to bottlenecks and disruptions - and be able to address them - as quickly as if they were on the floor.

The COVID-19 crisis and social distancing will eventually end, but whether companies are able to stay afloat through it and quickly recover to full capacity in the aftermath is a different story. Embracing the IIoT now could make the crucial difference for your company at this critical juncture in manufacturing history.

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