What is Industry 4.0?


Industry 4.0 is the biggest topic of discussion at the moment not only amongst manufacturing business leaders but also those involved in supply chain and logistics.

Industry 4.0 refers to the anticipated fourth industrial revolution as a result of technological advances in areas such as wireless, device interconnectivity, robotics, machine learning and cloud storage. The integration of these technologies into what is described as a “cyber physical system” has the potential to improve productivity, reduce costs and optimise logistics, thereby causing a revolution in global manufacturing.

Industrial Revolutions in History

The first industrial revolution took place in the 1800’s and saw the shift from manual labour and hand tools to powered, specialised machinery in purpose-built factories.

In the early 20th century, the second industrial revolution occurred. Mass production and the introduction of the production line further enhanced productivity and reduced costs as uniformed products were rolled out. Henry Ford is often credited with many of the advancements in mass production made during the second industrial revolution.

Often referred to as the “digital revolution” the third industrial revolution developed as the use of computers in manufacturing grew. Automation and computer controlled machinery again sped up productivity and accuracy as the need for manual human data input decreased.

The Internet of Things

The origins of industry 4.0 can be found in the development of consumer products such as smart phones, lighting, wearable biometric devices and cloud sharing. The term “internet of things” is used to describe the way in which multiple electronic devices can collect and share data without any human input, adapting their functions independently as conditions change.

A real-life example would be leaving the house in the morning and using a smart phone app to schedule your house heating to come on at a certain temperature before you get home. Getting into the car, your smart phone connects to the sound system and selects your favourite playlist.

Your car ignition switches on as you have a proximity key in your pocket and the car seats adjust position to your personal preference. You open up google maps and select a route from its memory bank of your previous journeys. All of these technologies are available today and are advancing rapidly.

From IoT to Industry 4.0

The leap from this type of consumer level interconnectivity (internet of things) to an industrial revolution (industrial Internet of things) may seem a big one, but real-life applications of these kinds of technologies can already be found in today’s factories.

Automated robotic processing machines such as those used heavily in the automotive industry are capable of recognising parts, identifying faults and adapting their functions accordingly. While cloud based data sharing is now common practice for product design, analytics and KPI’s

Example: Open integrated factory showcase

Developed in collaboration between SAP, Festo Didactic and Elster Kromschroder, the open Integrated Factory demonstrates a “smart assembly line”. In the example, the workpiece itself is capable of telling various machines along the line how it should be processed.

The assembly line is capable of producing two completely different products with 16 variations (a remote control, or components for smart meters). As the workpiece approaches a machine it communicates using RFID (Radio-frequency identification) programmed into the workpiece. This RFID contains all the product information and work parameters for each machine, telling each one how it needs to be processed.

The line consists of Initialization station, component depot, oven, drill, assembly robot, Q-gate camera, rework station and packaging station. Combining this with a sophisticated cloud based order system and ERP allows for almost instant flexibility in order changes, variant combinations, and process modifications.

Benefits of Industry 4.0 to Manufacturing

The Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute define industry 4.0 as:

“An integrated suite of tools that work with product definition data to support tool design, manufacturing process design, visualisation, modelling and simulation, data analytics, and other analysis necessary to optimise the manufacturing process”

In practice, this means much faster open data sharing both internally and between customer and supplier, which impacts the manufacturing process in real time. Cloud based information sharing and mobile connectivity mean that data can be accessed and manipulated from any location. A constant flow of information from design, development, production and sales is created and a real-time feedback analysis loop allows complete flexibility and adaptability.

The key benefits of this easily accessible, fast flowing loop of manufacturing data lie in diagnostics, product review and adaptation as live information is interpreted and analysed in real time. Coupled with rapidly emerging manufacturing technologies such as additive manufacturing (3D printing) robotics, artificial intelligence and augmented reality, the manufacturing process can become more flexible than ever before.

Other significant benefits of Industry 4.0 can be found in managing logistics and indeed the entire supply chain. In the conventional supply chain model, sales and marketing forecast demand, production analyse capacity, order raw materials and produce products, distribution then anticipate the volume of products due for dispatch and inform customers of expected delivery. Often these key steps are completed in a linear fashion and can become isolated, meaning that disruption at any point causes major delays. Any breakdown in communication can then further exacerbate the issue.

Industry 4.0 brings the opportunity to create a supply chain “network” which is integrated and completely transparent to all involved; material and component suppliers, production managers, logistics managers and end customers.

A network including integrated planning and execution systems, logistics visibility, autonomous logistics, smart procurement and warehousing and advanced analytics allows for a far more responsive and efficient service. Managers are able to see and even anticipate disruptions at any stage of the process, adjusting in real time to correct issues.

Risks of Industry 4.0 to Manufacturing

The primary concern of Industry 4.0 is unsurprisingly that of cyber-security as cloud based data is so openly shared. Propriety production data is particularly sensitive and IT systems need to be robust enough to protect information.

A major risk to any manufacturing business is disruption to production and a successful Industry 4.0 “smart factory” depends heavily on machine reliability and communication meaning that system stability and maintenance become crucial.

Labour is another aspect which will inevitably be affected by the rise of Industry 4.0 smart factories as lower skilled, repetitive functions are taken on by automated machines. Some also predict that some higher skilled management roles might become redundant with complex integrated systems able to perform more cognitive non-routine tasks through pattern recognition. However, industry 4.0 will also create new jobs in the form of skilled employees with specialised technical expertise.

The Integrated processes of a smart factory would require more workers with skills associated with planning and control rather than manual activities. IT competence and troubleshooting ability also becomes more important when dealing with complex systems.

A manufacturing example in practice

Midlands based sheet metal manufacturer Alpha Manufacturing are at the beginning of the transition towards the Industry 4.0 smart factory and the early building blocks towards a completely automated factory have been put in place.

The STOPA automated storage system, which is capable of not only storing and distributing raw material to processing machines automatically but also monitoring and replenishing stock, will be the backbone of the factory. Currently the STOPA feeds raw material into a Trumpf Trulaser Fibre laser cutting machine and TruPunch 6000 punching for processing before removing and re stocking processed parts.

Long term, a phased development of the STOPA will see it run the entire length of the factory and feed all machines. Coupled to this, Alpha have begun to invest in highly automated, intuitive machines which will also eventually be fed by the STOPA. The recently installed TruBend Cell 7000 is the most advanced robotic folding machine on the market. Programmed entirely offline, it requires minimal human input as it picks its own raw material, scans for accuracy, folds the part using a robotic arm and re scans the finished article before stacking for collection.

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