Designing in productivity: making the most of Industry 4.0

Embracing Industry 4.0 is essential if a company wants to remain competitively productive. Tim Fryer asked four of the leading automation companies if the message is getting over.

For those familiar with the Gartner Hype cycle, there is a stage when a technology, or the theoretical promise of that technology, is most visible. It is a stage called the Peak of Inflated Expectations. This is where Industry 4.0 currently sits as suppliers and users deftly, but sometimes confusingly, define the term to suit their own capabilities or technology roadmap. Barry Graham, field sales engineer at Omron, commented: “I think a lot of people have hit the barrier with what they can absorb with it – there are so many different versions of the terminology. It was put together by people from academia and now we need to put that in a much more condensed and understandable way.”

All would agree it is about the digitisation of manufacturing. This enables information to quickly filter through to all stages of the production and life cycles where it is applicable and then the looping back of any information that may help optimise the production or even the design process. Naming it as the fourth industrial revolution sets the bar pretty high, which is no doubt why we shouldn’t be too surprised to find ourselves in coming years moving into Gartner’s next phase, the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’, as we find out what it can’t do, as much as what it can.

Mike Loughran, field business leader, automation and software at Rockwell Automation believes Industry 4.0 can be broken down into four stages. “There is a conceptual side when the company is effectively offline,” said Loughran. “The next segment is connecting plant assets, then connecting these into business systems and finally connecting the supply chain. All four of these require three core things – people, process and technology.”

While technology is always improving, it undoubtedly already exists for an Industry 4.0 strategy. On the other hand, the process and cost to implement it may be daunting and the people need to be enthusiastic and informed if it is to work. One set of people who are critical to success, despite Industry 4.0 often being viewed as a manufacturing strategy, is the design engineers.

“The start point is product design,” claimed Simon Keogh general manager, factory automation and control products at Siemens UK and Ireland. “During the design phase of the car, for example, we can now do so much using simulation – aerodynamics, ride comfort, vibration testing, all within a digital model. This is a circle of data in itself, but we can go further by staying within that digital model and simulating how we are going to make the product…can it be done?”

He continued: “It is really about mitigating risk before significant expenditure and that’s what simulation and digitisation gives you. It allows you to do more collaborative design throughout your supply chain, so it brings together the product design with the manufacturing and execution side of it.”

Customer expectation these days is for customisation, so they get exactly the product they want. Flexibility in end product comes from agility in the production process and, assuming the design simulations prove the product is manufacturable, an Industry 4.0 solution will allow optimised use of manual staff, production equipment and robots all working collaboratively.

“The production system would also allow ordering straight from the internet to the production line and supply chain,” said Dr Soenke Kock, digital leader at ABB’s robotics and motion division, who added that many individual aspects of Industry 4.0 are state-of-the-art today. “It is the utilisation of several measures towards a defined goal that creates an Industry 4.0 scenario.”

Equally, several steps towards digitisation have already been made by many companies. Manufacturing execution system (MES) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems have been used for many years without a conscious Industry 4.0 agenda. “The data has resided on the plant floor and within the enterprise for many years,” claimed Loughran. “It is just a matter of utilising the data at both ends for the best results for the business. I honestly don’t believe there’s anyone who can’t adopt it in one form or another.”

Even factories with little new design input and ‘one product’ production lines can benefit by pacing both production and supply chain smoothly to meet demand.

Keogh said: “We are engaging in a lot of ‘CXO’ type individuals in small, medium and large companies which suggests that it is actually at the top of organisations where they are challenging themselves – ‘what do I need to do now, from where I am today, to make sure we are not left behind?’ Because I think it could be a case of if we don’t ask these questions and act on them, we will be left behind. Productivity figures in relation to what other companies and countries are achieving will tumble.”

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