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The increasing interconnection of devices and vast flows of data between machines are transforming factory floors around the world.

From robots that work alongside humans to tracking components throughout the logistics system, the internet of things (IoT) is reshaping the way products are designed and made — and changing the role of humans in manufacturing.


Unlike traditional industrial robots hidden behind cages, like those that weld car bodies, collaborative robots — or cobots — work alongside humans and have been spreading across production lines.

“[Cobots] can learn by imitation. They tend to have cameras with vision recognition software. You can move the hand of the robot, you do a task and after a few minutes the robot is programmed,” says Jonathan Cohen, portfolio manager of the $90m RoboCap UCITS Fund. This compares with 50 to 200 hours to program larger industrial robots, he adds.

Additive manufacturing

This is also known as 3D printing, because it involves building objects layer by layer out of substrates such as polymer or metal. Complex patterns based on digital designs that may not be possible with traditional manufacturing techniques can be made with less material and fewer process steps.

Digital twins

This expression refers to a virtual model of a process, product or service and is sometimes described as a bridge between the physical and digital world. Data from sensors are streamed from physical equipment to the virtual representation to create a continuous loop.

“In the past, you would have built a prototype of a car body, and crashed it and deformed it, put it under stress, in order to find out whether your design met specifications,” explains Jan Mrosik, chief executive of German engineering group Siemens’ digital factory division.

Data from real-world finished products and manufacturing plants can be fed into the digital twins in order to tweak designs and improve performance.

There are, however, limitations to widespread adoption, say industry analysts. While digital twins are attractive for the design of mass-manufactured and expensive products, it can be harder to scale the technology for manufacturing facilities, because of their different configurations and use of equipment from different suppliers.

Supply chain tracking

The ability to trace items sent by suppliers from truck to ship, train to warehouse and eventually production line is becoming more sophisticated as the cost of hardware falls and computing power rises.

Connected freight and logistics systems used to track at the ship or truck level, but sensors can now be placed on individual pallets of goods. Separate sensors inside transport vehicles and the final destination factory detect the movement of goods.

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