The concept of Industry 4.0 is becoming reality as manufacturers recognise the potential benefits of smart factories that utilise cloud computing to exchange data intelligently. Welcome to the fourth industrial revolution.

Over two hundred years, industry has constantly reinvented itself. Driven by new thinking and dynamic innovators, steam-powered mechanisation was followed by assembly line mass production techniques. Then the computers arrived. Automation as we know it today; man and machine working together as the first generation of robots sprang into life.

Now it’s time for an upgrade. The Industry 4.0 buzzwords have peppered news releases and management meetings for several years. Industry leaders have talked about disrupting normal manufacturing routines with cyber-physical systems and artificial intelligence.

The next brave step for manufacturers means investment in emerging hardware and software, giving tasks to smart machines (robots) that will communicate via the Internet of Things (multiple connected devices) and make on-the-spot decisions to contribute to the value chain.

Put simply, Industry 4.0 enabled factories will be equipped to operate more efficiently, react quicker and respond to customer needs. Less waste, greater profits.

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So, how might Industry 4.0 connect things?

For manufacturing organisations to maximise benefits from smarter assembly lines they must make their core data work harder throughout the production and distribution processes. That means deploying a central product information management (PIM) system that communicates in real time. Every designer, factory operative and salesperson must be kept in the information loop.

The same applies to the machines running autonomously – watching, listening, recording and transmitting data. Their deep learning algorithms will see them making some decisions, removing the burden of repetitive functions from humans. They will be part of the team.

As part of the third industrial revolution (computers and automation), production facilities added sensors to equipment. These helped to control the flow of assembly lines, stopping machinery if errors occurred. Then data capture points (DCPs) added reporting capabilities, feeding information back to engineers, although the data was often retrieved manually and certainly not fed to other machines automatically. Industry 4.0 will take connectivity to new levels.

The next phase will see manufacturers’ vital data interpreted by smarter machines, potentially cutting out the need for human actions. Computers will talk to computers. Devices will not exist in isolation. They will all be visible, securely linked via the cloud.

Industrial ‘evolution’ rather than ‘revolution’ is perhaps a better way to describe how machines and systems will steadily progress as the era of stand-alone systems is consigned to the history books.

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Manufacturing facilities of the future

Although multiple opportunities to change how products are created will arise because of what Industry 4.0 offers, future manufacturing sites are unlikely to be radically different in appearance. Bricks and mortar will remain standing, as will steel and glass. The wheel will not be reinvented.

Instead, rather than ripping up rule books and starting from scratch, processes will be re-imagined and optimised. There will be no need for vast roll-outs of complicated equipment. Existing tooling will communicate better, linking to the core system that will pass on details as required by other cogs in the manufacturing chain.

That knowledge transfer will be extended to all areas of production, offices and home workers via the cloud. Additional benefits will be derived from sharing experiences with other facilities in the organisation, learning together, helping to build knowledge, improve and avoid errors and downtime that might have occurred elsewhere within the group.

Assembly robots won’t have to follow painted lines on the shop floor, they will self-navigate. Engineers, fitters and customers will be taken around plants by autonomous vehicles. When not needed, these units will deliver items around the facility, managing their own schedule around part requirements, shifts and recharging time.

There will be no panic if lineside parts are missing. Additive manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing will supplement shortages, reducing down time and saving delivery costs. The print unit will pull down latest designs, call materials from warehouses and request physical support via HR if necessary.

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When just-in-time deliveries falter, production workers will no longer look to management for alternatives; robots will reduce takt times in advance as delays are notified, then redeploy surplus human staff for training, development meetings or early lunches. Time is money.

Maintenance technicians will no longer rush to faulty equipment. Devices will monitor their own health, reorder aging parts and call in robots to update software or parts as and when required. The human workers will not be redundant; they will be upskilled, involved in higher-level decision making, monitoring data and making interventions where necessary.

Describing the next generation of manufacturing facilities, smart machines and intelligent robots as “Industry 4.0” is part of society’s need to label things. It’s just another explanation of what’s happening across engineering, manufacturing and computing – sectors that were once mutually exclusive.

Moving forward, the sum of parts really will be greater than the whole if all stages of the manufacturing and aftersales process can be brought together for the greater good of organisations and consumers.

The challenge now is for manufacturers to exploit Industry 4.0 opportunities and unleash the power the product information held within their systems. Giving their people (and robots) and customers seamless access to this data will enable them to adapt, grow and prosper. But only if they are ready!

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