Quality Fundamentals Can Help Release The Full Potential Of IoT
By W. Frazier Pruitt
There is a revolution coming to quality. Industry 4.0 will touch every aspect of life and industry, with no exception for the quality function. At the heart of the 4.0 revolution is data, a topic with which quality and continuous improvement practitioners are very familiar. Whether 5G, blockchain, machine learning, the cloud, or embedded sensors, the data revolution is coming. Some will be dazzled by the vast amount of data, but quality practitioners already know that data for the sake of data have no value.
Maintaining purpose for the data may be more difficult than just knowing better. There will be strong pressure to implement 4.0 technologies. Whole new industries are growing up to support and implement these technologies. Bain & Co. and McKinsey, a pair of consulting firms, estimate that the industry will be worth $520 billion this year and $11.1 trillion by 2025, respectively.1
With incentives like these, there will be a lot of sales and marketing pressure trying to convince potential customers to buy Internet of Things (IoT) products and systems for their businesses. Additionally, industry pressure will influence corporate leadership. The resulting pressure for 4.0 will not only be from the outside organizations, but also from the top. Pressure from all sides will be difficult to resist—even for the most discerning leaders.
Luckily, there are ways to improve the implementation of 4.0 technologies. The key is to focus on fundamentals using three key questions: Should it be implemented? Can it be implemented? When should it be implemented?2
“When” is a caution against trying to be first at all costs, and “can” is really an honest evaluation of the potential difficulty. The opportunity is found in the most critical question: “should.” “Should” asks how a technology supports the fundamentals of operational efficiency and satisfies customer needs. “Should” also is deceiving because the greatest benefits may not be the most obvious.
Although the future is unseen, it is clear that 4.0 technologies increasingly will play a part. Interest is growing in all corners of business. Understandably, quality and operations professionals are particularly interested in IoT. With the potential to harvest mountains of data, it is easy to get excited, but the fundamentals will drive success. If it is data and not customer satisfaction driving the enthusiasm, people may be rightly excited, but it may be for the wrong reasons.
All about data
IoT is a set of technologies, including integrated sensors and embedded computing devices, with the common thread of being interconnected. As the costs of computing and connectivity falls dramatically, it will be prudent to use them in more applications. Clearly, IoT is about data, but the most effective methods of monetizing that data is yet to be seen.
To a quality professional, an obvious application of IoT might be in measurement data collection. As costs decrease, collecting data on product conformity may be financially justifiable, but alone it is short sighted. In both cases, where sampling is prevalent and where continuous inspection is prominent, the benefits likely will prove negligible.
Concerning the prior, some quality forefathers made great advancements in statistical application so that continuous measurement became unnecessary. Between the proliferation of Walter Shewhart’s control charts and Harold F. Dodge’s sampling plans, the benefit of reverting back to continuous measures will be small in most industries, even with efficient IoT.
In the latter case, like industries in which safety-critical characteristics demand 100% inspection, investments already have been made to accommodate the requirement with some level of efficiency. Again, the potential for improvement is minimal. In either case, so long as basic quality practices have been implemented, the effects of IoT on inspection may be an improvement, but are unlikely step changes or game changers.
Potential for processes
For more significant opportunities, IoT intervention should be applied in processes rather than in just product verification (see Figure 1). Just as early quality control advanced to proactive quality assurance, IoT intervention in processes also will have much greater potential. Greater potential can come without greater difficulty in a number of circumstances. One circumstance is where vastly larger data sets reveal more precise means and parameter relationships.
QUALITY IOT APPLICATION OPPORTUNITY MODEL
Before IoT, for example, many machine inputs were set and ignored, or given a range of acceptable parameters. In the past, course settings were a necessity that resulted in a goalpost mentality of the process parameters. With IoT levels of data, more precise relationships can be established, and more precise desired parameters can be calculated.
In addition, what once was considered noise or inherent process variation may become predictable and controllable with continuous collection of inputs. The result is step change improvements in quality without investing in new equipment or capital technologies.
Another circumstance that would benefit from IoT data are processes that require parameters adjustment based on environmental factors such as weather or variation of raw materials. Some inputs that once were adjusted based on combinations of intuition and superstition finally may be untangled. While experts in process industries do have highly tuned intuition, understanding the relationships measured using IoT is the first step before automating controls could adapt to weather or raw material fluctuation instantaneously. While addressing the process over the product is clearing a stronger proposition, it still is bound by efficiency to the incremental realm of improvement.
To release the potential of IoT, the focus on opportunities must shift to outside the factory’s confines. The opportunities are wide open when you consider what IoT can do for the customer. Today, there are refrigerators that notify users when food staples run low and ovens that start preheating from a touch on a smartphone. Greater still, information can be gleaned about user habits—ethically and with consent—to help drive further innovation or reduce over-processing waste from unused features. This level of information details starts to enable a paradigm shift in the industries’ composition of product versus services.
Products to service
One of the more profound trends related to 4.0 is a shift in many industries from products to services. This aligns with quality fundamentals and understanding customer needs. Oftentimes, what customers actually need is utility, not a product. This may seem a bit abstract, but people do not need cars—they need transportation. Automobiles are just how the need is met. Likewise, people do not need telephones—they need to communicate from a distance. Industries are starting to recognize that the customer need is the utility that a product fulfills, not the product.
This transition is occurring already. Practical examples include the shift in jet engines from product to a service. Engine manufacturers are taking a lead role in engine maintenance and monitoring. This is made possible by the data harvested using IoT. Engineers can apply advanced predictive maintenance to improve uptime and make real-time adjustments to improve fuel efficiency.
More and more, airlines are purchasing the utility of propulsion rather than the engine as a product.3 The relationship works because the seller generates continuous streams of revenue and an expanded scope, while the customer gets a lower total cost, less downtime and less investment. The result is a win-win that benefits the whole industry.
The possible applications for IoT in quality are only limited by creativity and an ability to focus on the fundamentals. The path will be difficult because the future is unseen, and there is no guidebook to what huge changes in entire industries could be. The changes must be initiated by the right leaders who ignore the growing pressure, yet have the appetite and capability to drive change.
Among the ranks of quality professionals may be the right people to lead innovation in 4.0 technology. Quality practitioners often are equipped with the technological aptitudes and intimate understanding of customers necessary to drive such innovation. Furthermore, their data knowledge will help them see through the excitement and stick to the fundamentals, even as they change the world around them.
- The Economist, “Drastic Falls in Cost Are Powering Another Computer Revolution,” The Economist, Sept. 12, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/economist-iot-drastic.
- Tyler Gaskill, Scott Laman, W. Frazier Pruitt, Anusha Selvakumar, Erin Urban, Jeff Veyera and Denise Wrestler, “Now What? We Asked Seven Experts to Share Their Best Advice. Get on Board!” Quality Progress, October 2020, pp. 12-25.
- The Economist, “The Internet of Things Will Bring the Internet’s Business Model Into the Rest of the World,” The Economist, Sept. 12, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/econ-connect-future.
Article originally published in Quality Progress February 2021.