Industry 4.0: What Every Manufacturer Needs to Know

With each passing year, our world becomes a little “smarter.” Each successive iteration of Internet technology produces a new generation of machines that look familiar yet demonstrate an increasing ability to learn from us and to automate our lives in surprising new ways. Just consider how, in a relatively short period of time, we’ve gone from landline phones to pocket-sized communication devices that know exactly where we are and can predict where we’re about to go next—and even suggest a route to avoid traffic. Or consider the fact that we can now rapidly prototype virtually anything using CAD software and a desktop 3D printer. Instead of talking about the Information Superhighway, we’re contemplating a burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT) and Industry 4.0 in which online devices wirelessly interact with other online devices in real time, learning from one another and helping us apply the massive amounts of data now floating around in cyberspace to live better, more productive lives.

Such technology is already changing the way we live, work, and play. That’s why forward-thinking manufacturers are preparing for a new era of production in which human workers no longer operate machines; they collaborate with them. After all, in an age of “smart” phones, “smart” homes, and “smart” cars, it’s only a matter of time before we have “smart” factories, too.

Welcome to the world of Industry 4.0. That’s shorthand for the next wave of digitized automation in manufacturing, which focuses on the disruptive potential of big data, extraordinary computing power, and unprecedented virtual connectivity. The first generation of industrialization involved mechanization, and the second generation involved electrical automation and mass assembly. The third generation arrived with the advent of computerized digital technology; and now, with the introduction of the Internet and machine learning, we’re heralding the dawn of fourth-generation paradigms.

Here are a few examples of what Industry 4.0 manufacturing looks like:

• Utilizing big data to streamline processes. Instead of merely operating according to a set of programmed instructions, machines optimize processes in real time by continually acquiring and analyzing sensory data at multiple points along the production line. A high level of inter-connectivity between machines enables them to leverage the power of distributed computing to establish complex metric histories, contextualize data at particular capture points, and correlate fluctuations in data against historical benchmarks. Plants therefore see improved recovery rates and reduced input costs as machinery automates routine QC checks and procedural adjustments.

• Digitally mapping physical entities for better design and process engineering. In much the same manner as 3D modeling enables a user to predict the output of a 3D printer, Industry 4.0 technology models physical interactions between machines in cyberspace, enabling a plant’s equipment to prototype and “test run” its production environment digitally–without wasted assets. Errors can be more accurately anticipated and addressed in the engineering stage rather than at the point of production, and product designs can be optimized against equipment capabilities.

• Enhancing personnel performance through more intuitive human-machine interfaces. Biometrics, voice recognition, and augmented and virtual reality technology enable more contextualized delivery of information to human workers. This improves real-time decision-making, reduces simple human errors, and automates record-keeping as employees go about their jobs. Increasingly, humans and machines interact according to a collaborative model as the unilateral “operator-tool” mindset becomes obsolete.

Those are some monumental developments, and they represent a sea change in how manufacturers may be doing business in coming decades. It won’t be an overnight transition, of course, but for many, it’s not a question of whether we’re moving in this direction, but of how quickly we’ll get there. Manufacturers need to be ready, or they’ll be left behind. We’re committed to helping you stay informed, because navigating this emerging landscape requires visionary courage and a little help from seasoned partners who know the terrain. Be sure to get in touch if you have questions about how automation technology can help you stay ahead of the curve.

Written by Radley Corporation