Industry 4.0 - sometimes referred to as the fourth industrial revolution - is not new. The term was first coined nearly ten years ago. Ironically, the supply chain upheaval and explosion of remote work caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has played a part in shaping industry transformation. Here is a brief introduction to the concept and how it is changing manufacturing.
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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. The emergence of new and improved digital technologies is a gateway to key operational efficiencies throughout the manufacturing process from conception to realization improving the total work environment. The transformation of the manufacturing landscape is accomplished by leveraging the latest technological developments, including:
- Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)
The networking of physical devices used in asset management.
- Artificial Intelligence
The ability to superimpose images to speed up processes or improve decision making.
- Blockchain Automation
Includes the use of the cloud to store and access vast amounts of data. Storage can be done in specific blocks.
- Robotics and Machine Learning
Using technology to perform repetitive or dangerous functions, while working alongside people, to improve efficiencies.
- Virtual Reality
The use of a digital twin to digitally replicate a real-world process.
- Advanced Data Analytics
Using sensors and devices to track and organize data.
- Additive Manufacturing
Three-Dimensional (3D) printing used in prototyping, tooling and customization.
Manufacturers that make the most of these technologies to create smart factories enjoy a competitive advantage and remain adaptable to change. Riding the wave of technology brought on by COVID-19-related supply chain challenges, stay-at-home orders and social distancing restrictions has become a benefit. Manufacturers adopting technologies that streamlined and automated the supply chain and implemented strategic changes to monitor and operate Internet-connected devices remotely have a distinct advantage.
Industry 4.0's integration of people, machines and data creates virtually limitless opportunities to improve manufacturing operations. Examples include:
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 to use robotics and artificial intelligence to teach machines to fix themselves. Advances in products geared to homes, cars and tech products leap forward with the ability to interconnect devices featuring amenities such as personal assistants, built-in safety and access to the cloud.
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.
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 of 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. Tedious physical functions can be replaced with advanced robotics that can work alongside people.
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. A digital twin that tests machine efficiency can alleviate costly physical simulations.
Using IIoT companies can use radio waves and sensors to read labels and track inventory remotely offering efficiencies in travel, time and labor while giving a more real-time analysis of stock items. Using data analytics, designs can be stored and manufactured closer to point of use alleviating the need for storage.
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Industry 4.0 is all about bringing humans and technology together for greater achievement. The drive to bring digital manufacturing into the everyday work environment speaks to progress towards sustainability both for the company and for global awareness. This technology is speeding forward; it is no longer a tool for mega large industries.
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? And. are you prepared to adapt your product development processes to a more automated environment?
If you answered "yes" to these questions, then it may be time to explore the competitive advantages and other benefits Industry 4.0 has to offer.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.