If perpetual motion were possible, would it revolutionise manufacturing, or cause global chaos? On one hand, it would make making things a lot cheaper, by driving down demand for energy in all its forms. On the other, it would probably lead to the collapse of commerce. So, on the whole, it’s probably better if perpetual motion stays in the realms of science fiction.
The other problem with perpetual motion machines, apart from their sheer impossibility, is that not only do they need to keep themselves going, perpetually, but they need to do it with energy to spare. At least, they do, if they’re to be of any practical use.
So, given that any perpetual motion machine would need to over-produce by, let’s say, 10% to be useful, it makes sense that there aren’t any around. But that reality hasn’t stopped engineers trying over the years and some of the best really do deserve some sort of medal!
Here’s a short video of ten (mostly) excellent efforts. It’s clear, however, that even if these designs are truly perpetual, extracting any useful energy from them would be difficult, probably resulting in an immediate stall.
Perpetual motion may still be a fanciful goal, but increasing efficiency in industrial applications is far from science fiction. A lot of the driving force behind increasing efficiency in the industrial sector comes from environmental concerns and targets to reduce CO2 emissions. The Carbon Trust has created cast studies ranging from the efficiency of bread ovens to the commercialisation of low-temperature asphalts for road building. It has also published a report that claims the UK’s microelectronics industry alone consumes 1,300 GWh of energy each year, while another joint report states that the remanufacturing industry (taking end-of-life parts and refurbishing them ‘as-new’) could be worth £5billion to the UK’s economy. The International Energy Agency has made environmental awareness one of its four areas of focus, and in association with the Institute for Industrial Productivity (IIP) has created a Policy Pathway for energy management programmes in industry. The IIP also maintains a database of technologies, tools and management systems for putting energy efficiency into practice.
Clearly these are large scale programs to address long-term energy efficiency across all industrial sectors, but manufacturers of any size can already act locally while thinking globally.
A major benefit of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) will be the productivity gains it could deliver. Efficiency in industrial sectors basically means doing things better, by measuring and improving processes. This activity has been an integral part of manufacturing ever since the first tools were knapped from stones found lying on the floor. Modern manufacturing environments are a source of vast amounts of information, before the IIoT most of this information may have been lost, uneconomic to collect or simply not considered useful. In the IIoT age, all of this information — data — has real value. With more data, all processes can be improved; machines can be operated more effectively, preventative maintenance can be planned with greater clarity, breakdowns can be located more quickly, losses will be identified in more detail and weaknesses in supply chains will be more apparent.
Collecting this data will be achieved using sensors. Advances in MEMS technology means highly accurate 9-axis sensors are now small enough to be mounted almost anywhere. Flow, temperature, moisture and pressure sensors will also play their part. These sensors will form the IIoT nodes, while tiny yet powerful microcontrollers (MCUs) will provide the intelligence. Wireless technologies, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee and other proprietary protocols will form the communications infrastructure, allowing all of this data to be passed over the Internet to cloud-based services, where the data will be analysed for patterns and insights. This element of the IIoT forms part of the complementary but perhaps even larger trend called Big Data, where all information, however disparate, can be analysed to find dependencies, or causes and effects, that will help deliver greater efficiencies.
So how can manufacturers become a part of the IIoT? Perhaps the first place to start is to carry out a site survey to determine how wireless connectivity could be introduced into the factory floor. Partnering with a Software as a Service (SaaS) company offering cloud-based data analysis will help identify what kind of data should be collected, followed by looking at how to add sensors to everything. There are many evaluation and development kits available to help manufacturers investigate the latest sensor technologies, wireless connectivity and IIoT solutions.
We may never harness perpetual motion, but the IIoT will ensure manufacturing industries will be able to achieve greater efficiencies. Now is the time to start evaluating, developing and deploying the technologies that will make the IIoT a reality.