Machine-to-machine communications, blockchain, and the manufacturing CRM

The term machine-to-machine (M2M) technology may sound robotic and cold, but its potential benefits are very human. M2M communication is as straightforward as it sounds, referring to the process by which two machines share data without any involvement by people. M2M is basically synonymous with the Internet of Things (IoT); the only difference is that IoT involves machines communicating wirelessly while M2M communication can be both wireless and wired.

Terminology aside, the potential upside of machines communicating automatically with one another is dramatic. For instance, the best possible healthcare relies on the constant diligence of doctors and nurses, especially when a patient is in precarious health. Though healthcare professionals do an amazing job tracking changes in blood pressure and other vital signs, M2M introduces the possibility of the automatic administration of oxygen or blood whenever a device monitoring the patient’s condition indicates that it’s necessary. An alert to a doctor or nurse will keep them informed, but fast action doesn’t require their physical presence at a patient’s bedside.

It’s not just healthcare that promises to benefit from increased M2M communication. In the energy industry, utilities can utilize M2M to automate meter reading and billing to ensure that accurate bills don’t depend on the close scrutiny (and good handwriting) of a meter reader. Home appliances that are equipped with sensors and communicate automatically with other machines hold the promise of making life easier for households. An M2M-enabled washing machine or refrigerator, for example, could know when supplies of groceries or detergent are low and automatically order replacements.

The applications for improved communication between machines – especially when paired with analytics – are expansive, which helps to explain why the market research firm Strategy Analytics projects M2M will grow by as much as 50 percent annually and reach $200 billion in revenue by 2020.

Blockchain, emerging technologies and manufacturing

The manufacturing industry has also turned its attention to M2M for a host of understandable reasons. Success in manufacturing requires efficiency at all levels. Machines that talk to one another can elevate efficiency—both financial and operational—by identifying equipment that needs to be fixed when it’s not working at its optimal level. In some cases, M2M communication involves a sensor sending an alert to a plant manager’s phone when a piece of equipment needs to be repaired.

But in other instances, no human involvement is required to ensure that production remains as efficient as possible. That can take place when M2M communication is paired with blockchain technology. Blockchain has attracted a lot of attention in recent years, much of it bad, because of its association with the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. But blockchain is simply a tool, an online distributed ledger or spreadsheet where information is entered into one cell (or block) at a time. After a block is created it is locked so that it can’t be edited and then connected to a chain of other blocks. The distributed and secure nature of blockchain has made it attractive to manufacturers because it allows for a verified chain of custody—which is important when goods change hands.

Increasing the automation and efficiency of a factory is that much easier when blockchain and M2M are combined. With blockchain, the specs for different pieces of equipment will ensure that spare parts are always on hand or can be ordered automatically so that repairs can be made quickly and easily. In some cases, it may even allow for machines to remedy their own problems and continue to operate without a repairman ever touching them.

The powerful combination of M2M and blockchain technology could provide other important benefits to manufacturers. For example, the times of the day when equipment operates could be adjusted based on the cost of electricity, providing significant savings for large users of energy. It could also help with both ensuring and proving compliance with regulations that apply to so many manufacturers.

Are your software vendors thinking about blockchain?

The factory of the future promises to be more automated, efficient, and safe. M2M communication and blockchain technology are two big reasons why. If you aren’t thinking about these kinds of coming technologies, you should be. And not just how you are going to use them, but also how your vendors are thinking about their implications. An ERP or manufacturing CRM should be looking forward to technologies like blockchain and artificial intelligence and figuring out how to make their systems compatible with these new ways of doing business.

Yes, they are a few years away, but you don’t want to be working with reactionary vendors. That’s always going to leave you behind, and with emerging technologies that’s the worst place to be. If you don’t know whether or not your vendors are thinking about these kinds of emerging technologies then it’s time to ask. And if they don’t tell you that they are at least considering their impact on manufacturing, it may be time to reassess those relationships.

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