The Internet of Things (IoT) has been around for some time. In its simplest form, the IoT connects devices to a wider, intelligent network. Whether it’s sensors or machines on manufacturing lines, in distribution centers, or tracking devices on individual shipping pallets, it can give businesses real-time information to monitor, automate, or optimize processes. When people talk about the “smart factory” or “smart supply chain,” they’re talking about the IoT.

However, barriers to entry like complexity, technical limitations, or implementation costs have often held businesses back from taking the plunge. Artificial intelligence once occupied the same space but has broken through to the point where everyday businesses can utilize it for great benefit and return on investment. Now, the IoT is poised to have its moment, especially in manufacturing and supply chain management.

Why IoT Use is Growing in Supply Chain and Manufacturing

Is the IoT finally about to have its moment? The IoT market in manufacturing is expected to grow from $313 billion in 2023 to $970 billion by 2028. So, what’s changing?

For manufacturers, leveraging the IoT to connect machines can create a more intelligent, efficient, and safer facility. Devices effectively communicate with one another, sharing data to make autonomous decisions based on real-time information, or to alert workers of maintenance or performance issues. While IoT solutions are bespoke by nature and tailored to specific environments, popular use cases include safety monitoring, automating production line processes such as quality control, and providing more accurate data and analytics.

In the supply chain, IoT solutions can help track, manage, and deliver goods. Applications can help automate or monitor specific picking and packing processes, and brands like Amazon employ solutions like this. On the other end of the scale, applications can be used to monitor the entire supply chain. For example, Volvo uses IoT to track the movement of vehicle parts from various countries, and to oversee the delivery of vehicles globally.

The Role of IoT Middleware

To fully harness the power of IoT in the supply chain, businesses need robust middleware. IoT middleware is a software layer that enables communication and data management between IoT devices and enterprise systems. It facilitates the collection, storage, and analysis of data from IoT devices, enabling businesses to make informed decisions and automate processes.

For instance, a logistics company with a fleet of trucks equipped with IoT sensors collects data on vehicle location, speed, fuel consumption, and cargo condition. Without middleware, this data would be scattered across different devices, making it difficult to aggregate and analyze. Middleware collects this data, standardizes it, and integrates it into the company’s existing systems, providing a comprehensive view of the entire fleet’s performance.

Middleware also plays a crucial role in device management, ensuring that IoT devices are configured correctly, updated regularly, and functioning as intended. It provides the tools needed to manage the lifecycle of IoT devices, from deployment to decommissioning. 

The Importance of Connectivity

This all sounds great, but as with any technology implementation, it comes down to how easy it is to implement and see a return on investment. As a fairly transformative technology, IoT solutions require a bit of work to get off the ground. Broadly speaking, implementation relies on three things: devices to gather data, applications to analyze this information and unlock value from it, and connectivity to bind it all together.

The importance of connectivity cannot be understated. Many IoT applications are developed under the assumption they will be powered by real-time data from their devices. For this to work, the system needs internet connectivity that can connect a large number of devices at once, with reliable speed. This is far beyond having good Wi-Fi. It requires every connected device to be, well, connected at all times with no delays—if your production line or security monitoring relies on the internet, it needs to be rock solid. It also needs to be secure. It is called the Internet of Things because it connects devices to the internet, but you don’t want key elements of your factory or distribution reachable online by the public or cyber attackers.

Layering Connectivity for Diverse IoT Technologies

One of the complexities of IoT implementation is the need to layer connectivity for multiple types of IoT technologies. These include RFID, NFC devices, LoRaWan, BLE, and a variety of conditional sensors that monitor things such as humidity, light, temperature, and shock. Each technology has its own unique requirements and applications, making it essential for IoT middleware to support a diverse range of connectivity options.

RFID and NFC devices, for example, are commonly used for tracking and identification purposes. These technologies enable businesses to monitor the movement of goods and assets in real-time. LoRaWan is ideal for long-range communication with low power consumption, making it suitable for remote monitoring applications. BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) is used for short-range communication and is often found in wearable devices and indoor location tracking systems. Conditional sensors measure environmental parameters such as humidity, light, temperature, and shock, providing critical data for quality control and predictive maintenance.

IoT middleware must seamlessly integrate these various technologies, ensuring that data from different sources can be aggregated, processed, and analyzed effectively. This requires robust connectivity management capabilities and support for multiple communication protocols.

Enhancing Robotics, Process Automation, and Labor Optimization

Another significant advantage of using middleware is its ability to enhance robotics, process automation, and labor optimization within the supply chain. Middleware provides the necessary infrastructure to integrate and manage robotic systems, allowing for increased automation and efficiency.

For instance, in a warehouse setting, robotics can be employed to handle repetitive tasks such as picking, packing, and sorting. IoT middleware enables these robotic systems to communicate with each other and with other IoT devices, ensuring seamless coordination and operation. This reduces human error and increases productivity.

Process automation is another area where middleware shines. By integrating various IoT devices and systems, middleware enables the automation of complex workflows and processes. For example, in manufacturing, middleware can facilitate the automation of production line processes, quality control, and inventory management. This leads to more consistent production quality, reduced downtime, and optimized resource utilization.

Labor optimization is a critical benefit of IoT middleware. By providing real-time data and insights, middleware allows businesses to optimize their labor force effectively. For example, middleware can help in workforce management by predicting demand and adjusting labor allocation accordingly. This ensures that the right number of workers are available at the right time, reducing labor costs and increasing efficiency.

How to Make It Work

This is why private networks are becoming increasingly popular for businesses, particularly in manufacturing and logistics. A private network is a mobile network (often 4G or 5G) set up to provide a specific area (like a factory) with reliable connectivity. It is, as the name suggests, private, so the business can ensure it has the exact bandwidth it needs, and the network is closed off from the security threats that would be present with a public network. Vendors including Amazon, Google, and HPE all offer private network solutions, and Private 5G “in a box” models are becoming increasingly common, so it is easier than ever for businesses to deploy these without needing the same internal technical expertise.

Once you’ve got an ironclad network, the next thing is enabling all your IoT devices and sensors to connect. Just like your mobile, these devices connect to the internet via a SIM card. Of course, a typical SIM card connects to a single network (Vodafone or Verizon, etc.). This is fine for IoT devices that are going to exist at a single site and never leave, but if they are going to move across a supply chain, they need to be able to connect to more than one network.

Enter the eSIM. It might already be familiar from such consumer technologies as the latest iPhone. An eSIM, or embedded SIM, has two main differences from its predecessor. One, it’s embedded in the device, meaning you don’t have to physically insert or remove a SIM card, and two, it facilitates connections with more than one network. This makes it possible for devices with eSIMs to “switch” between networks. For a mobile phone, this would be used when traveling abroad or switching between a work and personal number, but for an IoT device, this can support switching from one private network to another, or even between a private and public network (for fleet tracking, for example).

Partnering for Success

IoT solutions by their very nature involve a lot of moving parts. Effective IoT in the supply chain involves understanding exactly what you want to achieve and supporting this solution with the right technology such as private networks and eSIMs. While this in itself has been a high barrier to entry (requiring technical knowledge and deep integration), the proposition is becoming less daunting as solutions become more streamlined over time. While IoT solutions might never be available “out-of-the-box,” the private networks that support it (or the eSIMs that connect the devices) are.

This is a large part of why so much growth is expected in the space in the next five years. Manufacturers looking to deploy IoT in that time should partner with specialists to help them deliver their vision. The supply chains of the future are being built today. Are you on track to deliver?

As we look to the future of IoT in the supply chain, the need for affordable IoT middleware is evident. By reducing the cost barrier, we can enable more companies to adopt IoT technology and benefit from increased visibility, efficiency, and automation. The transformative power of IoT is within reach, and with the right partnerships and technology, businesses can build smarter, more efficient supply chains.

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