Human touch on Japanese IoT factory.

Hitachi has devised a system that tracks the movement not only of equipment and products but also of people to make labor-intensive factory work more efficient.

Innovation is allowing devices to gather and share information in new ways, a trend known as the internet of things. Tokyo-based Hitachi on Tuesday announced an IoT platform based on real-word testing at its controls factory in Ibaraki Prefecture northeast of here, where production lead times were cut by half for a particular product.

A total of 80,000 integrated circuit tags on containers and shelves holding parts and in-process goods help spot bottlenecks or other trouble at the 2,400-worker facility. High-performance cameras on wheeled equipment capture images of inefficient work. Artificial intelligence then analyzes the data to identify optimal assembly methods, sequences and postures.

The system often sheds light on areas for improvement unnoticed even by seasoned workers. One worker was taken aback to learn that exercising too much care in aligning doors during assembly hampers efforts to shorten lead times.

Hitachi installed the system at this plant in April 2015. Production lead times for power plant control panels, a mainstay product, have shrunk to 90 days from 180 days.

This marks a rare case of IoT making a demonstrable improvement in efficiency on an entire labor-intensive production line turning out small volumes of large equipment. Hitachi intends to market the platform to rail, heavy machinery and medical equipment companies, targeting 400 billion yen ($3.83 billion) in additional orders of production systems and related equipment in fiscal 2018.

General Electric of the U.S. and Germany’s Siemens also are keen on using the internet of things to improve manufacturing. They are strong in using sensors to predict hardware malfunctions and enabling equipment to share information in ways that reduce operating costs.

Hitachi is unique because it “is the only company that offers both the hardware and information technology,” said Hiroki Kitagawa, head of the company’s internet of things business. “We are confident about work improvements that hinge on humans.”

This includes helping reproduce the techniques of seasoned workers. In welding, where experience matters, the IoT platform can pinpoint how novices need to adjusts their shoulders or necks to move like veterans.

The human element of Japanese manufacturers’ technology is seen as their last line of defense against tough competition from Chinese and other Asian rivals. Incorporating human into into the internet of things has become part of Hitachi’s strategy for keeping domestic facilities open.

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