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Why You Know More About Industry 4.0 Than You Think

By: Aaron Fox
person pressing a key on a laptop with robots in the background of a manufacturing facility
Credit: iStock/ipopba

If industrial manufacturing had a buzzword of the decade, it might be “Industry 4.0.” The concept is inescapable, yet it can be hard to define, especially for small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs). After all, SMMs’ capabilities, needs, and budgets look very different from the large companies who often drive the latest innovations and trends. However, Industry 4.0 is so pervasive that many smaller manufacturers know more about the technologies than they might think. Below, we define Industry 4.0, then explore ways that SMMs can and do implement it already.

What Is Industry 4.0?

To date, there have been four major technological trends over the past few hundred years that have revolutionized industry and manufacturing. The first was the combination of mechanization with both steam and water power. The second joined mass production and electricity. The third was the rise of electronic and information technology (IT) systems, and with them automation.

We are now well into the fourth era of development, called Industry 4.0. According to PwC’s Insights, Industry 4.0 “refers to the fourth industrial revolution, which connects machines, people, and physical assets into an integrated digital ecosystem that seamlessly generates, analyzes and communicates data, and sometimes takes action based on that data without the need for human intervention.”

While this definition may sound complicated, Industry 4.0 is both more common and easier to implement than you might think.

How SMMs Are Already Thinking About Industry 4.0

Many of the technological components of Industry 4.0 are already in place, which is why this revolution is about bringing machines, processes and products together. In fact, many smaller manufacturers have already begun to implement Industry 4.0 solutions, including:

  • Robotics/Flexible Automation: Robots represent an important component of flexible automation and have many applications in industrial manufacturing, from welding and plasma cutting to assembly and finishing. Robots also offer many potential benefits to manufacturers of all sizes. When implemented correctly, robots can lead to better quality control, a safer work environment, reduced bottlenecks, increased production, improved job satisfaction, and more.
  • Smart Manufacturing: Smart manufacturing can be defined as the convergence of operating technologies (OT) and information technologies (IT) working together in a real time integrated fashion.” SMMs are implementing smart manufacturing whenever they use computer-assisted design software (CAD) to design a project, or monitor machines remotely via tablets.
  • Inventory and Equipment Tracking: Radio-frequency identification (RFID) identifies and tracks tags automatically by using electromagnetic fields. RFID chips have been used for everything from tracking animals to collecting tolls, and recent advances in designs have increased their durability to the point where they can be used for manufacturing applications. Many SMMs are already using RFID chips to manage their inventory, reducing unplanned downtime and increasing asset utilization.

Simple Ways to Get Started with Industry 4.0

The whole idea of Industry 4.0 is to seamlessly combine people, processes, and technology, so it’s important to integrate them at a pace that won’t overwhelm your employees. To begin, conduct a readiness assessment that identifies opportunities for simple, affordable, and effective Industry 4.0 technologies. Once you’ve identified these opportunities, prioritize them based on business need and cost so you’re not trying to execute too many new initiatives at once. Your local MEP Center can help you with this process.

One example of getting started with Industry 4.0 might be installing sensors on your computer numerical control (CNC) machines so you can start collecting data. Another might be using drones to gather data at different stages of your project, then using that data to inform models, tools, automatic reports, inspections, and analytics for superior decision-making and efficiency. A third would be using additive manufacturing (colloquially referred to as 3D printing) to make rapid prototypes or low-volume parts, speeding up development.

As a general rule, the easiest Industry 4.0 processes to implement will rely on technology that has existed for a while, which drives costs down and reduces the barrier to entry. For example, it would have been expensive to use early iterations of RFID chips for manufacturing applications, before new designs improved durability and reduced costs. Likewise, it took several years of development before 3D printers and additive manufacturing became accessible to SMMs and individuals.

While you may not believe it at first, your facility is probably using more Industry 4.0 technologies than you think. These systems will provide a strong foundation as you continue to integrate new processes and as Industry 4.0 continues to change the face of manufacturing.

If you’re looking for guidance on Industry 4.0, robotics/flexible automation, smart manufacturing, and related technologies, connect with your local MEP Center for more information and advice specifically tailored to the needs of SMMs.

About the author

Aaron Fox

With over 17 years in management positions, Aaron puts his change management expertise to work for OMEP clients and staff. His passion is providing the leadership necessary to challenge status quo...

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