Are Manufacturers Ready for Industry 4.0?
Industry 4.0 — sometimes referred to as the fourth industrial revolution — isn’t new. The term was first coined nearly 10 years ago. But the COVID-19 pandemic, by disrupting supply chains and normalizing remote work, seems to have accelerated the industry’s transformation. Here’s a brief introduction to the concept and how it’s changing manufacturing.
Simply put, Industry 4.0 refers to the digitization of manufacturing. That is, the integration of traditional manufacturing processes and practices with cutting-edge “smart” technology to enhance productivity and quality, improve efficiency, minimize costs and increase workplace safety. It accomplishes these goals by leveraging the latest technological developments, including the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), artificial intelligence, blockchain, machine learning, automation, robotics, virtual reality, advanced data analytics and additive manufacturing, such as three-dimensional (3D) printing.
Manufacturers that make the most of these technologies to create smart factories enjoy a competitive advantage. This became evident during the pandemic, as the spread of COVID-19 created supply chain challenges and necessitated stay-at-home orders and social distancing restrictions. Manufacturers that had adopted technologies that streamlined and automated the supply chain and allowed them to monitor and operate Internet-connected devices remotely had a definite advantage.
Industry 4.0’s integration of people, machines and data creates virtually limitless opportunities to improve manufacturing operations. Examples include:
Enhanced productivity. At one time, workers would wait for machines or equipment to break down before repairing or servicing them. This reactive approach led to significant downtime and lost productivity. In response, many manufacturers shifted to a preventive approach, replacing parts or performing maintenance according to a predetermined schedule (for example, every 1,000 hours of machine operation). A smart factory takes advantage of predictive maintenance: Wireless sensors embedded in manufacturing equipment can alert a technician when service is needed — even if the technician is off-site. It may even be possible, using robotics and artificial intelligence, to teach machines to fix themselves.
Supply chain and logistics flexibility. By taking advantage of interconnected supply chains, manufacturers can track materials and products throughout the process, obtain information about changing conditions (such as weather delays, natural disasters, health risks and political unrest) and make adjustments in real time.
Workplace safety. Industry 4.0 can improve factory safety in several ways. For example, sensors similar to those that notify you of the need for maintenance or repairs can also alert you to potentially dangerous conditions. They can provide warnings or even shut or slow down equipment if a worker enters a hazardous area. Plus, the ability to monitor and operate machinery or equipment remotely minimizes workers’ exposure to risks of injury or, in the case of a pandemic, infection.
Cost savings. Adopting Industry 4.0 technologies can reduce costs in many ways. For example, robotics and automation can reduce labor costs and allow the factory to operate 24/7. Real-time monitoring and quality control can help reduce product returns and eliminate waste. Predictive maintenance helps avoid costly repairs and downtime, and fewer accidents and injuries mean reduced costs. Finally, technologies such as 3D printing can reduce costs by streamlining the manufacturing process and shortening delivery times.
Manufacturers interested in making the transition to Industry 4.0 should gauge their readiness. For example, is your current technology infrastructure equipped to handle the data storage and processing requirements of today’s smart factory? Is your company’s culture amenable to the type of change needed to make the transition? Are you prepared to shift your workforce to the more highly skilled labor required to oversee a smart factory? Are you prepared to adapt your product development processes to a more automated environment?
If you answered “yes” to these questions, contact us, it may be time to explore the competitive advantages and other benefits Industry 4.0 has to offer.