Innovation and Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 - What’s my name?

The Germans call it Industrie 4.0. The Americans call it Connected Enterprise, and the British call it the 4th Industrial Revolution. But what is it? And should we want it?

The term ‘Industrie 4.0’ was coined in Germany at the Hannover Fair in 2011 as a strategy to mitigate for increasing competition from overseas. As manufacturers from overseas improve their quality, manufacturers in Europe have to find some way to differentiate themselves from the competition. It is difficult to compete on price when your labour force is well paid and expects good working conditions, so the German government's genius was to target both flexible production and the use of intelligent monitoring to aid decision making and machine maintenance. The results of this thinking lead to numerous opportunities, for example - flexible production gives us the ability to design our own trainers which are then made on the other side of the world, while intelligent monitoring gives us machines that can potentially tell us when they need to be serviced.

A lot of hot air and hyperbole

If you read the adverts and press releases regarding industry 4.0 it is often not clear what it means for businesses. You would be forgiven for thinking that if you capture and analyse more data, you will simply make more money. Companies advertising cloud computing, edge analytics, artificial intelligence and more seem to be offering some of these benefits. Do all of these technologies fall under the Industry 4.0 banner? Yes and no. Industry 4.0 is a vague term that promises a lot: a smarter more connected world in which we are free to enjoy creative thinking while our possessions complete the mundane tasks. Our fridges will order milk when we run out and our cars will drive us to work. Our machines will arrange their own service and our warehouses will manage their inventory. Brilliant ideas, but to achieve these things in reality we must remember the devil is in the detail.

Next Steps

It is true that some companies have made great steps towards a connected world (like Amazon-Go, a high street shop without tills). But many other companies are still reading the press releases. Do we really need advanced analytics? Is there anything wrong with our current system? It's worked for years!

At my employer we have taken a small step towards the connected world. We researched industry 4.0 in all its guises and considered what could be of value to us. In honesty, I must admit it was a bit overwhelming at first - like entering a car show room and being presented with every possible optional extra. We realised very quickly that internet security is a major concern for our customers, and that rules out cloud computing and analytics which have to be performed on remote computers. Fortunately we saw enormous value in visualising data and presenting it next to the machine: live availability data and live monitoring of crucial components. All of the data is kept on-site and doesn't have to leave the factory for someone to recognise that their is a problem that needs attention.

We made a mock-up of a manufacturing machine in our workshop and plotted the data with Rockwell’s FactoryTalk. We connected our rig to an PC and then to a router, and we invited colleagues to look at the data on their own phones. Anyone with a mobile phone can connect to the wifi and see how the machine is performing. Now comes the great part. . . we deliberately introduced errors into our machine: a small reduction in air pressure, a change in the positional accuracy of the servo motor and then asked people to identify the problem. When looking or listening it is difficult, the change in overall performance is small. But the graphs and evidence are there if you look at your phone. In a more traditional environment the evidence would also present itself at the end of the shift in the availability and quality figures. However, at the point the shift has already finished, it is difficult to drill down to the cause of the problem.

And the future

Our interest is in plotting data in real time to help identify problems as soon as they occur. A graph of overall machine performance would be linked to graphs of individual models within the machine, which in turn would be linked to graphs of individual components. The interface would be user-friendly and compatible with smart phones so that the data is accessible as possible. With a few additional steps to set-up employee’s accounts we would only show each person what they needed to see.

Imagine a cruise liner sailing between islands. . . the skipper needs a different level of information to the chief mechanic. The skipper needs to know that the engine is running properly so that he or she can plot a course. The mechanic needs to know pressures and temperatures from several positions around the engine, and what speed to run at. In the same way, we envisage showing senior management and operators different types of information. For the former, availability and quality figures, plus high level comparisons between machines and shifts. Meanwhile the operators would be able to see and the condition of machines and act if anything started to go awry.

The next step is to overcome security concerns and connect machines to the internet. Doing so would allow the machine builders to help diagnose and rectify problems. Additionally, factories within the same group could share best practise. For example, why is a machine in one country producing more than the same machine in another country? The answer, I'm sure, will be clear when we can compare data side by side.

The future is very promising and certainly there is value in Industry 4.0, but each company has to decide what it wants and find the most cost effective route to get there. In my experience a series of small incremental steps will be far more effective than trying to get to the destination in one leap.