We’ve seen preventive maintenance pioneered in jet planes and even our cars, where sensors plus software can determine in advance when a part will fail and alert operators to pre-emptively replace it.
I’d thought, based on all the industry chatter about the “industrial internet,” that we were pretty far along in this process. But that turns out not to be the case.
Even General Electric Inc.—which along with Siemens AG, International Business Machines Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and others has been a major proponent of the industrial internet in the U.S.—has faced challenges implementing the new process in its own manufacturing facilities.
“Candidly, one of the things we work on is how we can get our legacy equipment connected,” says Karen Kerr, senior managing director at GE Ventures. GE has nearly 500 factories, and the company’s goal is to transform 75 of them into smart, connected factories this year.
Part of the challenge is to properly use the hardware companies already have. Newer machinery is bristling with sensors and data ports that are typically only used when these machines are being built or repaired, says Dennis Hodges, chief information officer of Inteva Products LLC, a major manufacturer of auto parts. Others are working on ways to put additional sensors where they weren’t previously—an effort that creates new challenges, like how to power them all.
Recently I put on a smartwatch on that could be a harbinger of this sensors-everywhere future. The Matrix PowerWatch, launching this week, never needs recharging. Its power source is thermoelectrics, which means that it can turn any difference in temperature—typically that between a solid object and the air around with it—into electricity. As I looked at it, a little power bar slowly grew, until the watch was generating 200 microwatts of energy harvested directly from my body heat. It is a relatively tiny amount of power, but enough for a smartwatch—or for the sensors and transmitters deployed in smart factories.
Power sources like this, or solar panels, or piezoelectrics, which gets power from vibrations, are key to getting sensors onto more of our built environment, preventing the cost and time in changing sensor batteries.