First Steps Towards Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 is upon us, but what exactly does it mean?  Not just in defining the term, but in understanding the potential benefit it can bring, then once prepared, how to go about implementing Industry 4.0 technologies in your shop.

Recent years have seen a resurgence in manufacturing activity that while good for business, can cause stress – too much work to handle with existing space, leading to issues with manpower, processes, and equipment. The usual reaction is simply to add more workers and more equipment.  Good workers, however, are scarce and many shops lack the physical space for additional equipment.  Production capacity is increased but productivity often is not because we continue to be mediocre at effectively utilizing that shiny new machinery.  Capital expenditures alone are not a panacea to capacity; effective use of that capital equipment, however, can be.  How do we identify exactly what, where, and how to improve?

A commonly used approach is to simply use existing production rates as a given and quote new work assuming that same level of efficiency.  Our success rate at winning new work and the resulting profitability is therefore constrained by the current state.  Astute shop management will work to gather information about current performance for each machine, job, shift, etc., in an effort to identify areas of improvement.  Often, this is done manually resulting in imperfect information being delivered tomorrow…too late to fix today’s problems.  What we need is the right information, right now.

We have the technology, powerful and inexpensive computers, internal networks, and the internet.  We have existing systems to help us plan how we’re going to handle our workload.  We even have computerized machinery that is easily capable of communicating its status and performance.  What we don’t have yet, or often, is the full utilization of the opportunities presented by the confluence of these technologies.  By using these commonly available technologies, we can immediately gather, view, and measure our performance.  This real-time insight to our operations allows remedial actions to be taken quickly.  This possibility is no longer limited to very large manufacturers – very effective and affordable systems are available that let you – small shop managers – realize the benefits and ROI of immediate awareness, root cause identification and the effectiveness of remedial actions.

The first step, then, is to get those smart, money-making assets to tell us what’s happening right now.  In the past this had been challenging because the equipment and control system manufacturers had not been challenged to intercommunicate with other systems.  Luckily, with the growth of the MTConnect® standard protocol, this challenge has been met.  All machines, sensors, even operators, can now communicate their status in a standardized format making data handling and client software connections to each asset far easier.

For those looking to begin, successful implementation starts with clearly stating your goals and Key Performance Indicator (KPI) targets and thoroughly considering your network infrastructure’s cybersecurity – especially considering older assets running on obsolete operating systems that cannot be upgraded easily or economically. Finally, by publicizing current performance and encouraging improvement suggestions from all areas of the organization, this effort can be a successful first step towards implementing Industry 4.0 technologies in your shop.