Are you really Industry 4.0 ready?

Recent Deloitte global surveys show that 94 per cent of executives in industrial companies consider digital transformation a top priority. However, only 14 per cent believe their factories are ready to make the changes needed to realise Industry 4.0. Here Andrew Falconer, performance manager at automation parts supplier EU Automation, explains what could be slowing adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies and how more businesses can put their digital transformation strategy into practice.

For over a decade, manufacturers have seen the benefits of automation and how it can improve productivity in a variety of applications. Larger manufacturers, such as Siemens, Bosch and ABB, led the way in digitalisation and demonstrated the advantages of new technologies to improve efficiency across the supply chain.

Despite the success these companies have achieved and demonstrated to other businesses, small to medium enterprises (SMEs) have been slow to innovate. However, these businesses can experience similar success if they digitalise processes. As Jürgen Maier, former CEO of Siemens, explained when delivering the Made Smarter Review, “It is massively important for SMEs to engage with digital technologies. Many smaller companies think it is only for the likes of Siemens, but it is not. Technologies such as robots are now affordable and applicable to any manufacturer and can make significant improvements to productivity outputs.” 

Manufacturers have been aware of the benefits of advanced technologies since the term Industry 4.0 was first coined at Hannover Messe back in 2011. So now, it’s no longer a question of whether a manufacturer should digitalise, but how quickly. 

Only a question of skills?

Manufacturers will continue implementing new digital technologies like AI, advanced robotics and cloud computing, but is it worth it if the employees are not fully trained? The reality is that with the development of digital factories, the role of human workers will change and factories must ensure that they have the highly-skilled workers needed for efficient operation. 

According to The Manufacturer’s latest Annual Manufacturing Report, 59 per cent of respondents believe that the education system is failing and cannot keep up the pace of change in manufacturing technology. Schools are doing more to ensure young people improve technological skills and encourage more people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. However, as technology advances more rapidly and new processes are introduced to the industry quickly, there is no guarantee that these skills will still be useful when the students enter the workplace. 

To ensure that manufacturers can find the skilled staff they need, they should work with trade associations to improve skills both in-house and in the education system. Local innovation hubs can train staff on new technologies, showing them how to operate new systems efficiently. Manufacturers can also collaborate with education programmes and schools to encourage more students to enhance their technological skills and stay up-to-date with the industry so that they are ready for their future career. 

The right fit

Even if a plant manager hires the most qualified employees, cost remains one of the biggest obstacles for the full digitalisation of a factory. Smaller businesses might be reluctant to overhaul their entire facility because their current technology operates efficiently, and they cannot see the immediate return-on-investment. However, there are more cost-efficient ways for manufacturers to remain competitive and continue their own Industry 4.0 journey.

While smaller manufacturers can continue to use legacy equipment if it still works, they should be aware of the risks of unplanned downtime. A lack of visibility and real-time data prevents manufacturers from accurately monitoring machine condition and detecting faults before they cause breakdowns. Instead of waiting for downtime to occur, these manufacturers should invest in devices that can help them to improve the productivity and maintenance of their existing systems.

Heighten the senses

Sensors are not a new technology — the military used them in 70s and the commerce industry adopted the technology in the 90s. Now, manufacturers can use this affordable technology to gather real-time data about a variety of parameters, such as temperature, pressure and flow. Accurately monitoring machine condition across the facility allows manufacturers to detect and anticipate issues, planning maintenance in advance to avoid expensive downtime.  

Engineers can fit sensors to existing equipment to immediately improve operations. Businesses should also consider adding connectivity capabilities to existing machines to allow devices to communicate over the internet and improve remote monitoring capabilities. Improving the ability to collect and share data across the entire factory can help plant managers implement a successful preventative maintenance strategy and keep legacy equipment running efficiently. 

Long term benefits

Smart sensors can also help make long term improvements to operations. Traditional motors in a machine, for example, are either on at 100 percent power or off, irrespective of the speed the application requires. Smart sensors will detect if machines are overheating because they are operating faster than required. Manufacturers can then fit equipment, such as variable speed drives, to avoid premature breakdowns.  

Access to real-time data about certain parameters can alert manufacturers to any issues with a machine, such as overheating. They can then plan maintenance to replace parts and adapt settings to reduce the risk of breakdowns interrupting production. As manufacturers place smart sensors across their facility, they can gather more information and see long term benefits of increased visibility. Only operating machinery at the speed required and improving preventative maintenance will reduce energy consumption and costs across the business. Manufacturers should also see a reduction in maintenance costs and will be able to analyse data over time to see where they can make further improvements to productivity. 

Back in 2011, Industry 4.0 wasn’t just about investing in new technology and tools to improve manufacturing efficiency, but about revolutionising the way an entire business operates and grows. For almost a decade we’ve seen companies racing to become part of this revolution and invest in advanced technologies to compete with key industry leaders. However, companies do not need the budget of larger manufacturers, such as Siemens or Bosch, to transform their business. By taking the time to choose the right adaptations for their facility, whether that’s replacing entire systems or modifying current infrastructure, every business can achieve its own version of Industry 4.0.