Makers of semiconductors spend upward of $5 billion to build and operate fabrication plants—known as “fabs”—that run 24 hours a day so they can recoup their investment before the equipment becomes obsolete in five years or so. Rows of pristine machines sit in windowless cleanrooms, which are almost as free of humans as they are of dust. Intel and Texas Instruments have spent decades perfecting this almost sci-fi form of manufacturing. Now they want to show the rest of the world how it’s done.
The chipmakers have set their sights on what researcher IHS estimates is a $185 billion global market for gear to automate industrial production. To capture a portion of that spending, they’re prodding companies to bring the Internet of Things—a term that describes a world in which physical objects are embedded with electronics and talk to each other—into factories. “It’s moving beyond hype and into engineers rolling up their sleeves,” says Doug Davis, senior vice president of the IoT division at Intel, which had more than $2 billion in sales last year. “The economic value and impact are unquestioned.”
In the assembly line of tomorrow, industrial robots now caged off to prevent them from accidentally injuring human workers will move about more freely. A machine outfitted with optical and motion sensors would be able to detect a hand that is delivering a tray of parts and adjust its movements so as not to inflict damage.
Intel is also working on technology to make humans less error-prone. Last year it showed off an “intelligent” glove that uses chips to power a simple display on the wrist. If the person wearing the glove completes an assembly task correctly, a large green check mark appears. If not, a red cross flashes on the screen. Conceived by Workaround, a German startup founded by ex-BMW employees, the glove could become a useful accessory at auto plants or electronics factories.
Autonomous robots and bionic line workers are still years if not decades away. Ethernet connections are only just making their way onto factory floors, while Wi-Fi hardly has made a dent, which means most plants don’t have a communications platform to support an Internet of Things. This is partly by design: Hackers can’t penetrate systems that aren’t connected to the outside. “The best way to protect your system is to disconnect it from the rest of the world,” says Avner Goren, who heads embedded processing for Texas Instruments. His unit contributed a fifth of the company’s $13 billion in revenue last year. “The idea of IoT is to connect it to the rest of the world.”
To allay companies’ security concerns, Goren is pushing the deployment of multiple networks. That way a wireless link that transmits information on the internal workings of a machine can’t be hijacked to take control of the machine itself. That’s pretty much what happened in a staged hack of a Jeep Cherokee in July.
Intel says it’s already demonstrated the benefits of the Internet of Things at one of its own plants. At a facility whose location the company declined to name, a combination of sensors and software correctly identified that vacuum pumps used in the manufacture of silicon wafers were about to fail. What tipped them off? Irregularities in the pumps’ normal pattern of vibrations.
Selling factory owners on the use of electronics for discrete functions, such as maintenance, will be easier than persuading them to overhaul their entire setup so that every piece of equipment is churning out a stream of data that can be parsed by computers. Some see a day when factories will be able to talk directly to warehouses, which will be in communication with stores, which will allow companies to tailor production more carefully to demand. “The big goal of smart manufacturing is to network the entire supply chain,” says Mark Watson, an analyst for IHS. “That is a fair way off.”
The bottom line: Intel and Texas Instruments are angling for a piece of the $185 billion market for industrial automation gear.