Evolution before revolution: the origins of Industry 4.0
We’ve come a long way from the days of Henry Ford famously telling customers that they could have the Model T car painted any colour ‘so long as it was black’ – a quote which reflected the compromise of having to put efficiency before choice.
These days, modern car plants seamlessly manage demand for both volume and mass customisation by making vehicles with a multitude of different finishing options, often on the same production line.
It’s a similar story of technological advancement across many other industrial sectors. In food and drink, for instance, greater connectivity and integration means production plants are now highly reconfigurable, meeting consumer demands for much wider variety and choice. And in pharmaceutical facilities, the emergence of personalised medicines has resulted in dramatic changes in manufacturing methods to cope with the need for flexibility.
This newfound adaptability is just one indicator of rapid change in the manufacturing sector in the era of Industry 4.0. The phrase, marking the start of the fourth industrial revolution, was first coined in Germany a decade ago to describe the convergence of technologies such as computers and automation, along with intelligent and autonomous systems underpinned by data and machine learning. As more and more companies adopt Industry 4.0 methodologies, manufacturing is entering a truly transformational period which will deliver the smarter and more connected factories of the future.
Evolution before revolution
But before we look at the potential of Industry 4.0, let’s highlight some of the important milestones that have transitioned manufacturing from the limited performance of early factories through to the integrated production seen today. This transition represents an evolution spanning several decades. The adoption of the first industrial robots in the 1960s, followed by the development of the microprocessor and the computer ten years later, kickstarted the widespread introduction of factory automation across the manufacturing sector.
The introduction of automation triggered the arrival of manufacturing at mass scale, with developing countries such as China, Japan and South Korea adopting new technologies, emerging as industrial behemoths with the size and technical capabilities to rival their Western counterparts. The lower labour costs and worker protections found in many of these countries provided ultra-competitive business conditions which resulted in their industrial bases expanding at an unprecedented pace.
SCADA changes everything
But while automation levelled the playing field for developing countries, creating a globalised manufacturing sector, most companies were still taking a piecemeal approach to the way they used new technology. Typically, individual projects would be implemented on a case-by-case basis, with limited connection to other investments and therefore providing very little visibility of wider plant performance. It wasn’t until the development and introduction of the first Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems – comprising sensors, conversion units, supervisory systems and a communication network – that a more joined-up approach was taken.
The application of SCADA systems meant that data could be retrieved from factory assets and delivered in realtime to a centralised computer linked to human-machine interfaces. This enabled engineers to monitor and control assets, ranging from a single industrial plant to a network of facilities across a distributed area.
"The widespread implementation of SCADA systems heralded the start of a digital journey which continues today."
SCADA changed the game – democratising what had previously been siloed data from individual pieces of equipment and making it more meaningful for those charged with improving plant performance. This meant industrial assets such as automation could be fine-tuned to run optimally, and thus with longer life, while reducing the opportunity for human error.
The emergence of IIoT
Importantly, for many industrial organisations, the widespread implementation of SCADA systems heralded the start of a digital journey which continues today. As confidence grew, and a broader range and greater number of assets were connected, engineers became ever more comfortable with the idea of using digital technologies to increase operational efficiency and boost the bottom line.
Now, decades on from the introduction of SCADA systems, talk has turned to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), a more open, standardised and scalable means of connecting physical devices and making the most of the data that they produce. It is important to point out that SCADA and IIoT shouldn’t be viewed as competitive technologies. Generally speaking, information generated from SCADA acts as just one of the data-sets for IIoT, which combines enhanced connectivity and analytics to give a more rounded view of industrial performance.
So, where is IIoT starting to make a real impact with regards to factory automation? The early ‘killer application’, arguably, has been in the area of predictive maintenance. The development of smaller, faster and cheaper sensors means the list of ‘things’ that can be connected has grown exponentially over time, allowing plant engineers to record data around a whole host of parameters such as pressure levels, temperature, vibration, acoustics and flow. This data, combined with the power of analytics, can be used to reveal telling patterns and problems within factory settings, or with installed equipment out in the field.
With machines and specialised sensors collecting data at every step of the way, the potential benefits of IIoT are huge. Instead of performing fixed schedules of maintenance, based on the periodic examination of equipment and mending of problems when faults occur, the IIoT is enabling companies to capture and analyse data, warning of potential problems before they result in downtime.
This effective means of tracking of patterns to indicate failure can feed into the use of condition-based modelling, unleashing the potential of genuinely predictive maintenance programmes.
This trend is having a marked effect on the role of the maintenance professional. IIoT infrastructure and the introduction of new equipment such as augmented reality headsets means that roles that used to be about fixing assets have become more about stopping equipment from failing in the first place. Maintenance is becoming more proactive and is increasingly being viewed as a primary means of delivering competitive advantage. Subsequently, manufacturers are investing greater resources in factory automation as a means of delivering continuous improvement in their maintenance activities.
But IIoT isn’t just about maintenance. Increased connectivity and integration of industrial environments is also having an impact on the way that production line assets are designed and used. Take robotics, for instance: traditionally powerful robotic arms used on factory floors have been housed behind safety cages to protect workers.
However, the latest generation of collaborative robots (cobots) features a suite of positional sensors, in combination with enhanced IIoT connectivity, that enables them to react to the presence of a worker in a split second. This development means that, in certain situations, cobots can be safely operated alongside human beings, creating more flexible production lines with greater levels of customisation.
Then there’s plant transportation and logistics – another area where IIoT architecture is changing day-to-day operations. Increasingly, it is becoming common to see autonomous robots roaming factory floors, often as an effective means of moving parts or goods around large facilities, improving efficiency through more effective route optimisation. A recent study from global professional services experts PwC said that 9 per cent of manufacturers have already adopted semi-autonomous or autonomous mobility within their operations and that this figure would double by 2021.
Of course, safety will remain of paramount importance as autonomous vehicle technology increasingly finds its way into industrial environments. Factory robots rely on sophisticated positional sensing, 3D camera systems, artificial intelligence and ubiquitous connectivity to enable them to navigate their way around the shopfloor reliably and unobtrusively. And it is only through the widespread application of robust and resilient IIoT systems that allows these vehicles to work in harmony with those around them.
Industry 4.0, a bright new future
It’s clear, then, that modern factories have come a long way from Henry Ford’s vision of one product available in one colour only. Digital technologies
now provide the operational backbone of all industrial facilities, characterised most recently through the emergence of IIoT as a means of providing realtime visibility and optimisation of maintenance, operations and logistics. The result is smarter factories benefitting from unprecedented levels of integration and connectivity.
"Already, we are seeing Industry 4.0 methodologies driving the advent of new manufacturing trends such as mass customisation."
So, where next? How will new technology and improved ways of working continue to propel manufacturers down their path to digital transformation? The answer comes in the form of Industry 4.0 – the collective term used to describe the wider convergence of connected systems, including IIoT, to drive future business benefit in manufacturing. Industry 4.0 is the logical step on from where we are today, pulling together many strands of rapidly emerging technologies such as 3D printing to further augment the ways that plants are operated.
Already, we are seeing Industry 4.0 methodologies driving the advent of new manufacturing trends such as mass customisation. Here, technologies such as cobots and additive manufacturing can be used to design and manufacture personalised products, with the efficiency of mass production. This opens up a new era of manufacturing, where technology can be applied to deliver previously unattainable levels of choice, ensuring that the customer truly is king.
Indeed, the upsides of Industry 4.0 cannot be overstated. By seamlessly managing the flows of Big Data, resulting in more informed real-time decisionmaking across an organisation, Industry 4.0 holds the promise of delivering the leaner and more productive factories of the future. And there are benefits across the lifecycle of what is actually being made. By enhancing connectivity, manufacturers will derive benefit from monitoring the performance of their products out in the field, improving repair and servicing performance, and driving new business models based on
In short, with Industry 4.0 we stand on the precipice of a manufacturing revolution. And now is the time to capitalise on the enormous advantages it will bring.
For more on Industry 4.0 and the Industrial IoT, explore these resources:
- Industry 4.0 trends transforming manufacturing
- Industry 4.0 in manufacturing: 26 applications driving real value
- Industrial IoT in manufacturing
- 7 game-changing IIoT applications
- Predictive maintenance with IoT: The road to real returns
- INFOGRAPHIC: These 8 charts will challenge your perspective on the IIoT