Special Report: Automation

Smart fabrication

By Nick Wright

As the Internet of Things connects machines and automates processes, resulting data will reveal insights, boost revenues

March 2015 - Launched in 2011, the website IFTTT, which stands for If This Then That, is an ingenious service that lets users automate various aspects of their lives without constant monitoring. For example, Google’s Nest Thermostat is a Wi-Fi-equipped smart appliance that replaces a traditional home thermostat. Users can use IFTTT to program Nest to, say, lower the temperature when they leave the house, or turn a fan on for 15 minutes every morning at sunrise. It’s easy home automation using a smartphone.

The Nest Thermostat is perhaps the best-known example of what’s called the Internet of Things (IoT): connecting everyday electronics to the Internet, 

allowing them to be activated and automated. No matter the device, IoT represents the emergence of our physical world as an information system to be harnessed, analyzed and automated. 

Manufacturing and metal fabrication are two spaces in which IoT has massive potential. Consider how many disparate machines—from material handling to finishing—could produce information through Wi-Fi-equipped sensors, streaming real-time data to a company’s central dashboard where a supervisor can optimize processes. The data could be shared with suppliers, distributors and customers for their benefit.


Sure, hurdles to embracing IoT connectivity in the metalworking world exist. Manual machines, which don’t necessarily have PLC or other controls, would have to be outfitted with sensors. The upside is most fabrication shops do run CNC controlled machines that are connected somehow: to a central monitoring system, to their manufacturers, or to other shop machines (known as machine-to-machine, or M2M connectivity). However, many of these machines aren’t linked to the Internet—rather, they’re islands of connectivity. 

Once they are linked to IoT, machines and processes can predict failures, adjust to changing manufacturing conditions, or trigger maintenance modes. It’s an industrial shift that many have dubbed “Industry 4.0.”

Smart sensors

In last year’s March automation story, FFJournal explored how advancements in sensor-equipped robots make the robots smarter. Now, gather the information coming from those sensors. Whether it’s pressure, temperature, weight or tolerance, IoT streams all that data—from the end-effect or throughout the manufacturing process—to the supervisor and beyond. 

For example, Harley-Davidson’s renovated plant in York, Pennsylvania, uses manufacturing execution software (MES) from SAP to monitor each manufacturing step. According to SAP, Harley-Davidson can build 1,700 bike models on one production line, and move customized bikes out the door about every 90 seconds. The company now makes 25 percent more motorcycles with 30 percent fewer workers, and the schedule required to build a motorcycle takes six hours, down from 21 days. Harley-Davidson measures how long it takes to install every component on a motorcycle within one-tenth of a second. The MES alerts floor supervisors about issues down to the individual component level. The data produced from each step is analyzed constantly to allow operators to make decisions that boost efficiency and throughput.

Similarly, at General Electric Co.’s Durathon battery plant in Schenectady, New York, about 10,000 sensors embedded in the assembly line as well as a sensor in each battery generate real-time part status. Floor managers, along with other remote departments, can check each major and minuscule nugget of data on their tablets as they walk the floor and tweak the manufacturing process as needed. The inclusion of sensors in a manufacturing operation isn’t anything new, of course. Neither are ERP and MES software programs. Traditionally, even a highly instrumented factory was usually isolated from the rest of the enterprise, with production data reported after-the-fact to other corporate areas, such as finance and product design, David Stephenson, with emerging technology research website O’Reilly Radar, said in a 2014 post. 

“Now, because many of the sensors on the factory floor have their own Internet Protocol (IP) numbers and the data is recorded using open standards, information can flow automatically to those other parts of the enterprise, fully integrating the factory to the enterprise for the first time,” he said.

It’s the connectivity on a macro scale and the implications of data access that will transform manufacturing, and eventually smaller operations like metal fabricators and job shops.


Connect, fabricate, improve

Large-scale, household names like GE and Harley-Davidson certainly offer case studies that make it easy to grasp the IoT concept. Some companies closer to the metalworking realm are embracing IoT in manufacturing their products. Industrial saw blade maker Lenox, based in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, has equipment in its facility that’s connected to central data systems, which lets Lenox monitor performance. In its R&D facility, it has an internal sawing department that constantly tests and benchmarks new products. “We have proprietary data systems that share key pieces of data and allow our engineers to monitor the information from a distance,” says Matt Lacroix, director of marketing and global business team leader.

On the customer end, fabrication companies could rely on IoT connectivity to drive automated performance tracking, predictive measurement, remote diagnosis and tool optimization software, Lacroix suggests. Tracking cuts per blade (tracking) could prevent a saw from failing under stress or wear (predictive measurement). Or, the shop might have a machine that’s not working properly. The machine manufacturer could connect to the equipment over the Internet to diagnose the problem, saving a costly trip and reducing downtime (remote diagnosis).

“Sawing parameters change based on the application,” says Lacroix. Different materials, sizes and shapes have a big influence on the parameters. “If a machine could remotely tap into an optimization tool, it could help the organization choose the right parameters. This would ultimately lead to better performance,” longer blade life, faster cutting, better part finish and so on. The possibilities for growth are plenty. 

John Nesi, vice president of market development at Rockwell Automation, which gets businesses connected to improve manufacturing functions, told Forbes last year that only 10 percent of industrial operations are using a connected enterprise. Others, like PwC, estimate that it’s closer to 20 percent. At any rate, the sheer potential for manufacturers and fabricators to bring on connectivity in the form of software and sensors is vast. Along with Rockwell 

Automation, juggernauts including Siemens industrial automation and Bosch Software Innovations are making strides to establish IoT infrastructures.

The biggest industries investing in sensors and IoT connectivity are energy and mining (33 percent), power and utilities (32), automotive (31) and industrial manufacturing (25), a PwC report from 2014 indicates. In the near term, the main users of IoT in metal fabrication will be bigger companies with budgets sufficient to purchase the necessary tools. 

McKinsey & Co. suggests IoT has the potential to generate as much as $6.2 trillion in new global economic value annually by 2025. The consultancy recently projected that 80 to 100 percent of all manufacturers will be using IoT applications by then. That suggests a potential economic impact as much as $2.3 trillion for just the global manufacturing industry.


Data management

Software developers will no doubt be leading players when the metal fabrication world begins to apply IoT connectivity at large. The companies providing ERP and MES software are best positioned to integrate cloud-based monitoring dashboards into their customers’ operations, whether it’s a fabricator or machinery manufacturer. Santa Clara, California-based Jasper provides an IoT platform that enables device connectivity through 24 mobile operators like AT&T, from which end users would purchase a data plan to monitor machines. This eliminates the possibility of Wi-Fi networks being a choke point in the event of downtime. “Cellular is not dependent on what’s going on at the customer,” says Theresa Bui, Jasper’s director of product marketing for cloud connected devices. “It’s more secure and can’t be jammed easily—it’s one less factor for a manufacturer to diagnose if something goes wrong.”

Jasper outfitted ABB Robotics’ robots with Control Center, the name of Jasper’s IoT platform, which lets ABB monitor its remote service enabled robots at customer facilities across five continents. With U.S. offices in Auburn Hills, Michigan, ABB robots are commonly employed in welding setups. If one of ABB’s customer’s robots malfunctioned, technical service was reactive—it waited for the customer to call, all while the robotic sat idle. Now, using Control Center, ABB can be proactive when something goes wrong without waiting for a call or sending a technician out. This is where the cellular connectivity comes in—if the Wi-Fi on a customer’s end went out, ABB wouldn’t be able to connect to the robot. The SIM-card equipped robots alleviate that headache. What’s more, says Bui, connectivity software is changing the business model of some companies, as it has for ABB. In a way, they become service companies instead of solely OEMs. “The challenge for vendors in this space is making sure they have the infrastructure to support this new business model going forward,” she says.

Jean-Christophe Alt, an ABB Robotics product manager in France, says Jasper’s Control Center aggregates real-time monitoring data across its remote devices and can automate responses before incidents occur. That could mean saving hours worth of productivity for an end user.

Metal fabricating, a sector that in pockets can be old-school and therefore less keen to adopt new technology, is where IoT will gradually become a necessity. However, it likely won’t trickle down to smaller shops in terms of cost for three to five years. As the software, technology and sensors advance, it will become affordable, lowering the barrier for entry for even the smallest of job shops. This is Industry 4.0. The more common IoT becomes, language standardization will be the looming challenge. FFJ

Illustration: Bosch; Photo, top: Harley-Davidson; bottom; ABB


Company Profiles





Camfil APC - Equipment Trilogy Machinery Inc. Metamation Inc. Admiral Steel
Camfil APC - Replacement Filters



Alliance Steel
Donaldson Company Inc. AMADA AMERICA, INC. Messer Cutting Systems Inc.



Mazak Optonics Corp.


Enmark Systems Inc.
MetalForming Inc. MC Machinery Systems Inc. Peddinghaus Lantek Systems Inc.
RAS Systems LLC Murata Machinery, USA, Inc.




TRUMPF Inc. Davi Inc. SigmaTEK Systems LLC
Steelmax Tools LLC


Trilogy Machinery Inc. Striker Systems


MTS Sensors



Bradbury Group


Mate Precision Tooling AIDA-America Corp.
Burghardt + Schmidt Group Fehr Warehouse Solutions Inc. Rolleri USA


Butech Bliss UFP Industrial


Alliance Steel
Red Bud Industries




Tishken Advanced Gauging Technologies Automec Inc. BLM Group



MC Machinery Systems Inc. Prudential Stainless & Alloys
Mayfran International Cincinnati Inc. SafanDarley



LVD Strippit


Barton International
ATI Industrial Automation Scotchman Industries Inc. Hougen Manufacturing Flow International Corporation
Lissmac Corp. Trilogy Machinery Inc.


Jet Edge Waterjet Systems


Behringer Saws Inc. Omax Corp.
SuperMax Tools FAGOR Arrasate USA Inc. Cosen Saws


Timesavers MetalForming Inc. DoALL Sawing American Weldquip



HE&M Saw Strong Hand Tools
Beckwood Press Co. Titan Tool Supply Inc. Savage Saws T. J. Snow Company