How Manufacturing Plants Can Prepare for Industry 4.0

Here's how manufacturing plants can prepare for the 'fourth industrial revolution'.

How Manufacturing Plants Can Prepare for Industry 4.0

If you spend any time reading articles and features from industry-specific pundits, you’ll notice one phrase thrown around quite a bit — Industrial Revolution. Although what’s currently happening can’t be referred to as a full-fledged “Industrial Revolution” like the past three, it's still taking the industry by storm. Before we see where the industry is, let's quickly recap how far it's come.

The first revolution kicked off in the 1700’s with the emergence of the commercial steam engine and the mechanical loom. The second came at the start of the 20th century when electricity and mass production became widespread. Finally, the invention of the computer sparked the third revolution shortly after World War II. The current state of the industry is hailed as Industry 4.0.

Of course, the first question that comes to mind is what fuels the revolution this go around? The answer — interconnected, more efficient digital technologies. Think, the modern state of digitization including more advanced computing solutions, cloud and remote computing, IoT and connected devices, and the adoption of AI and machine learning.

If you want to be precise, no single technology or platform fuels the movement on its own. Instead, it’s more of a collective approach to the modern digital transformation.

But when you actually sit down and take a look at the way things change, the way industries evolve and the way the world rapidly transforms, the term “Industrial Revolution” no longer seems hyperbolic. It is, in fact, a great way to explain and describe the sweeping changes happening in the modern world.

What Is Industry 4.0?

The term “Industry 4.0” essentially represents another way to describe the fourth and current industrial revolution brought on by modern technologies. Like most software applications and electronic devices, the 4.0 moniker refers to a software revision or release, meant to indicate the overall shift toward digital platforms. Modern digital technologies and applications transform nearly every industry and sector, including medical, energy, manufacturing and retail.

Some of the more common influential technologies and platforms include:

Advanced robotics and automation

Artificial intelligence and machine learning

Cloud computing and remote solutions

The Internet of Things or connected devices

Smart and real-time data sensors

3D printing and digital fabrication mediums

Data capture, software analytics, and processing

SaaS, PaaS, IaaS, DaaS, XaaS (those terms explained)

Mobile technologies and platforms

Smart vehicles and transportation

Real-time data processing and communications

Many of these technologies are deployed — and considered — separate. Yet, when you look at them collectively, it forms the basis of the modern physical and virtual world across varying industries. For the most part, they all address productivity and efficiency and allow varying systems and platforms to transcend in regards to performance, speed and reliability.

Let’s look at 3D printing — also called additive manufacturing — as an example. It is a remarkably simple yet highly transformative form of modern technology. With a 3D printer, you take a digital blueprint file and feed it into the main system, which then converts it for use with a printer. The physical printer will begin creating or developing the item detailed within, using any number of materials, the most common of which is hard ABS plastic. 3D printers can also configure to work with masonry and concrete, metal and more.

In this way, the entire manufacturing and development industry effectively restructures. 3D printing allows consumers to make goods from the comfort of their own home. Services and providers can set up a remote printing location, which people can then order goods and product development from. In a way, this cuts out much of the involved process of traditional manufacturing.

3D Technologies

5 Sectors That Have the Most to Gain From 3D Printing

It hasn’t uprooted mass production and development factories, just yet, but it’s not difficult to see how this technology might transform the industry as a whole as it becomes more widely adopted.

And to think, that’s just one technology compared to the rest of the list above. Automation is another that is poised to make as much of an impact. Seventy-seven percent of companies boosted their revenue by automation core parts of their operations. Furthermore, the robotics market — fueled by automation — expects to reach $87 billion by 2025.

None of these technologies, 3D printing and automation included, are to be scoffed at.

For Many Solutions, Maturity Has Yet to Be Achieved

The technological infrastructure roll-out of these platforms and services, and varying forms of application are still in their infancy. That doesn’t mean you should avoid implementing the tech. In fact, now is a great time to get involved and help shape the future of the industry.

Many industries explore the concept of using some of these technologies. Manufacturing, for instance, is seeing something of a renewal with companies now starting to embrace Industry 4.0 configurations.

Most of the changes happening are structured to emphasize customization and extreme participation from parties that were never involved before. Mass customization, as it’s called, allows consumers to weigh-in on the goods and products during development to shape how they are created — this allows them to personalize the product for their own needs and desires. Something like this was never possible in the past, largely due to the lack of capabilities, hardware and efficiency.

As a definition, mass customization is when a mass-produced product is created, to scale, while also fully tailored and developed to meet specifications from the consumer or client. Instead of mass producing a single version, variant or model, you build hundreds — maybe even thousands — of different products with the same core components.

This is just one way Industry 4.0 transforms the modern manufacturing process and local plants.

Another major change is that manufacturing and development are now closer to the consumer or client than ever before. Thanks to technologies such as 3D printing, it doesn’t have to be handled remotely, at a far plant or factory. These newer, more modern setups can deploy just about anywhere, including locations closer to the target audience or demographic.

How Can Manufacturers Prepare for the Modern Industrial Revolution: Industry 4.0?

Step one, though rather obvious, is to come up with an adoption plan or strategy. This entails getting to know the technologies and options at your disposal, as well as the new skills and personnel needed to maintain a modern plant. What are the new positions opening up? You will need software interface or UI designers, digital innovation managers, data scientists and more.

What tools and software will be necessary to make use of the new technologies? Do you need people experienced with said tools, or is there some form of training available for existing personnel?

Before moving forward, make sure you understand the current state of the industry, new and modified technologies, and how you can leverage them to improve your processes. More importantly, make sure you have the resources necessary to supply any upgrades.

Now that you have your plan, let’s move on to other ways you can prepare.

1. Focus on Improving Processes

The ultimate goal or achievement, if you will, of adopting modern systems is to come up with a wholly efficient, maybe even autonomous process that cuts out excess fat, ballooning costs and poor development or operations. Your focus should be on end-to-end process improvement, which will, in turn, help shape collaboration within your organization, even with the necessary hardware and systems.

That means investing in training and education, process automation, related hardware and maybe new tools or software.

2. Implement, Test, Revise and Then Repeat

It will take time to learn and make effective use of new technologies and systems, so it’s best to implement them early. This also allows you to stay ahead of the competition, who will likely also prepare for Industry 4.0.

Implement the technologies and systems, test and revise their setup, and continue doing so for the foreseeable future. More importantly, if something doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to look for alternatives or to come up with a better solution. As a manufacturer, you must remain both agile and reliable, which requires a great deal of tact. Pay attention to your efficiency, and look for improvements, then lock them down.

3. Trial and Test Before Buying

Many providers will allow you a grace or trial period whereupon you can use their technologies and systems to see how it works for you. Because modern technology — especially in manufacturing — is so rapid-paced and fast-changing, it makes sense to give it a try before ponying up the cash.

Adhere to rigorous planning and testing phases before rolling out the official use of a new software tool, application, piece of hardware or system. Put it through its paces, and make sure the solution works for your organization and processes.

4. Improve Information Management and Organization

DocLogix is a great example of a robust, easy-to-use document management system which will help you stay more organized and keep track of various data and information about your organizations and processes. Before your management and production teams can collaborate more effectively, and before they know and can measure progress, you need to have the information available that helps them discern these performance stats. All employees, starting at the top and working all the way down, must have access to and skills with reporting, accountability and monitoring. This affords greater transparency across your organization and helps push the boundaries in regards to continuous improvement and enhancement.

5. Understand Your Customer’s Needs

Manufacturing, development, production and fulfillment are all a means to an end. The ultimate goal is delivering a worthy product or service to consumers. That requires knowing who your customers are and exactly what they want. You can never lose sight of this.

If through all your optimizations you forget to tie everything back to the customer, it’s possible to alter your processes in such a way that you doom your business. Make sure your speed, flexibility, reliability, customization and modern enhancements still work to meet the customer’s needs.

6. Establish a Leader

This isn’t so much of an issue with smaller businesses or organizations, but it’s still something to consider. It’s always best to have a leader or representative focused solely on your brand’s digital transformation. It should be someone knowledgeable and experienced in both modern technology and your company’s processes and requirements.

Said executive will lead the digitization of your organization, choosing what digital products, platforms, services and hardware improvement are best suited for you. They can answer to or collaborate with a digital council within your company, but they should still have the power to make decisions.

What this does is allow everyone to focus on a central goal or plan. It allows for improved and streamlined collaboration, and much better adoption strategies, data organization and testing oversight.

Welcome to the Smart Factory of the Future

The digital transformation or modern digital revolution in the manufacturing industry, if you will, paves the way to the “smart factory” of the future. One that is not wholly efficient and aware, but also incredibly flexible and agile. That includes the customization of end-to-end product development, faster times to market and better functionality across the board.

To work, a smart factory will need to enable collaboration and communication across all personnel, parties and departments including employees and executives, partners, vendors, suppliers, distributors and consumers.

Luckily, technology is already on the way to making this scenario possible. It’s a matter of preparing your processes and existing plants for its imminent arrival.

Megan Ray Nichols is a blogger and freelance science writer. She enjoys participating in conversations about engineering, technology and space exploration. Megan is also a regular contributor to Datafloq, Cerasis, and American Machinist. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing. Subscribe to Schooled By Science today to keep up with scientific discoveries or follow Megan on Twitter.

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