Industry 4.0 – Dawn of a new era?

Industry 4.0 is the fourth era of manufacturing.

The First Era Started in the 17th & early 18th centuries with the first mechanical machinery that carried out work previously people did manually, leading to the Industrial Revolution. The Second Era followed in the early days of the 20th Century. Key was the evolution from steam to electricity together with the birth of the assembly line. Most notably applied in the USA by Henry Ford to produce his Model T.

It was the Second Era that saw the birth of mass production driven by the population explosion.

The Third Era was the birth of automation and the use of electronic systems. PLC’s, SCADA and HMI began to control the production equipment. The result was higher productivity with fewer staff, yet delivering huge improvements in product quality, all at reduced cost.

Industry 4.0 is the Fourth Era, the latest evolution of manufacturing. Key to this era are developments towards smart factories, using advanced AI and algorithms. A new industrial development of connected smart devices, the so-called “The Internet of Things”, is also playing its part. But is it really a 4th industrial revolution or just the current systems evolving much like many consumer goods such as computers, TVs and automobiles with their improved connectivity? 

What is Industry 4.0 and what does it mean for manufacturers?

First, we must stress that Industry 4.0 is not a thing, it is an evolution. As with the previous ‘eras’, they don’t happen overnight, however, things are speeding up. The First Era evolved over 100 years or more with the shift from agriculture to industry.  Industry 4.0 is already here in some quarters and is likely to be ubiquitous within 2 decades    

Many people are writing and posting online. Industry 4.0 is the use of newer clever, “smart” technologies, added and integrated into existing production lines, linking several lines or even entire factories, into one seamless integrated facility.

Distance is no barrier to connectivity. Integrated facilities may be miles apart or even across the world. The ability to operate truly flexible manufacturing capabilities on a global scale represents a significant opportunity. Global peaks in demand, energy cost variations, commodity prices and even exchange rates can all be monitored and managed to drive competitiveness and profitability. Industry 4.0 may well be key to survival in today’s highly competitive global markets.

Industry 4.0 is about harvesting and using production data in ways that previously weren’t possible. Factories will be more automated than ever before, collation of process data in real time can make production self-monitoring. Management teams initially set operational parameters. Then, data feedback enables the identification of opportunity for improvements and efficiencies. These can apply to machines both individually and collectively and also to the manpower that carries out and oversees manufacturing functions.

Addressing the Skills Gap

There is a good deal of talk in the press about jobs being lost to automation. Some people are even suggesting we should be moving to a 4-day working week. However, in the industrial engineering and technical sectors, there is a skills shortage rather than a manpower surplus. In this environment, Industry 4.0 can deliver further benefit in freeing valuable (and expensive) people with the technical capability to carry out a wider range of critical functions within a factory.

It’s a Process…

New Machine to Machine equipment and the “Industrial Internet of Things – IIoT” are facilitating these changes but let’s not forget, the concepts are rooted in the development of the microprocessor in the 1960s. Now we are using these technologies in new, improved formats and in ways that improve communication between equipment, assembly lines and plant operatives and managers. The significance of ‘now’ is that we are seeing these technologies become ever more mainstream, reshaping manufacturing processes across the world. The process that started several years ago is really starting to have a major impact.  

Improved communication aids monitoring both real-time and long-term. Live Data helps develop new efficient maintenance plans aimed directly at reducing downtimes, identifying problems sooner and smoothing out production inefficiencies, even predicting potential issues before they arise. Factory operatives and managers will, more than ever before, have access to practical real-time data that will help them identify where in the production cycle, the best improvements can be found.

Industry 4.0 will undoubtedly have an impact on competitiveness. As with the previous manufacturing evolutions, early adoption is riskier but can give a significant competitive advantage. Delay can avoid the mistakes of early-adopters but also create an unbridgeable performance gap. Either way, there are both risks and rewards. Interesting times ahead….

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