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Ushering in Industry 4.0: Intelligent and interconnected machines make inroads into the manufacturing space

December 03, 2018
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The advent of Industry 4.0, which is a combination of traditional manufacturing and technology-driven industrial practices, has significantly altered the level of technology adoption among manufacturing enterprises. Commonly called the fourth industrial revolution, Industry 4.0 involves the use of cutting-edge technologies like big data analytics, internet of things (IoT), cloud computing, automation, 3D printing and augmented reality, and is expected to  help in digitalising processes across the manufacturing value chain. As these technologies can directly control the physical world, including machines, factories and infrastructure, they have now started dominating the modern industrial landscape. Several companies are adopting mobility solutions such as scheduling, visibility, plant utilisation, throughput analytics and order tracking for their management functions. These solutions not only help them in reducing inventory and production costs, but also make the supervision of day-to-day operations smoother.

The technological transformation driven by Industry 4.0 has changed the look of the current factory set-up. It has allowed companies in the manufacturing industry to gather and analyse data across machines, enabling the formulation of faster, more flexible and efficient processes that help in producing high quality goods at reduced costs.

A look at the key technology trends that are changing the face of the manufacturing industry…

Industrial IoT

IoT has emerged as one of the primary trends dominating manufacturing operations today. The manufacturing industry has its own version of IoT, known as industrial internet of things (IIoT), which incorporates machine-to-machine communication and automation technologies. Industries are adopting IIoT for predictive and proactive maintenance, real-time monitoring of operations, resource optimisation and remote diagnosis. Through IIoT, manufacturing enterprises are moving towards an environment of connected sensors, which gather data about the current work and equipment status. Data collected from the factory equipment can help determine the health of the machinery and identify potential issues. This form of predictive maintenance can help curb productivity losses and potentially extend the life of factory machinery.

Leading global manufacturers including wind turbine companies such as Siemens and General Electric, and automobile firms like Harley Davidson are some of the early adopters of IIoT. In a bid to accelerate the adoption of IIoT in India, Vodafone and enterprise solutions provider SAP recently announced a strategic partnership to develop comprehensive communications solutions for enterprises in India. Under the partnership, Vodafone and SAP will offer a host of innovative packages comprising connectivity solutions, a business application software, end-to-end device management and support services to promote the usage of IIoT.

Despite the benefits offered by IIoT in streamlining production processes, several manufacturing companies have been reluctant to adopt it owing to concerns regarding interoperability between devices and machines that use different protocols and have different architectures. Another major concern is the security of IoT systems. Companies need to ascertain whether the benefits offered by IIoT are greater than the risks associated with it, which include unrestricted access to company information and increased vulnerability of internal systems to hacking, viruses and destructive malware.

Cloud computing and analytics

Cloud computing is playing a vital role in enabling the next industrial revolution. Cloud-based solutions offer manufacturers a wide range of benefits such as scalability; operational efficiency; application and partner integration; data storage, management and analytics; and enhanced security. It also facilitates research, design and development of new products, which help reduce product development costs and time to market.

Cloud-based systems can be scaled up or down to manage shifting project workloads, an attribute useful in the manufacturing domain. Moreover, cloud computing enables manufacturers to leverage infinitely scalable computational resources on an on-demand, pay-as-you-go basis, so that manufacturers can readily access the computational resources they require without having to purchase expensive IT equipment upfront. This is especially useful for small- to medium-size manufacturing enterprises that lack the financial resources to purchase expensive IT equipment. Further, cloud enables manufacturers to use software such as enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management and product design, which greatly improve enterprise agility.

In addition, cloud computing providers mostly employ best-in-class cybersecurity practices that are far more sophisticated than what individual companies can deploy, making IT systems in the manufacturing industry more secure. Another area where cloud computing helps the manufacturing sector is the integration of the data generated from IoT-enabled production equipment on the factory floor. Data streams from different partners, platforms and devices are difficult to integrate at in-house data centres as opposed to well-networked data centres operating on the cloud. This data can be analysed through analytics software to obtain actionable insights into the factors directly supporting a company’s key business decisions such as the prevailing competitive landscape, possible sales incentives for specific products and new levers that can drive sales revenues. Further, big data analytics has the potential to combine and analyse real-time information at each step of the production process, from receipt of a customer’s order to customer fulfilment and satisfaction, thereby enabling better decision-making.

Augmented reality

Augmented reality is another technology that is gaining traction among manufacturing enterprises. It can help factory personnel perform intricate assembly, maintenance and repair jobs by producing virtual work instructions that can guide assembly line workers and quality assurance technicians in performing complex tasks. For example, augmented reality can be used to highlight the sequence of operations and special tools needed for the task, as well as display warnings about potentially hazardous activities and materials.

Several large manufacturing companies have started using augmented reality in their facilities and on the field. Some manufacturers running augmented reality programmes have reported efficiency gains of over 30 per cent. For instance, aerospace company Lockheed Martin uses Microsoft’s HoloLens, a pair of mixed reality smart glasses, which helps the company provide all the information needed by a technician in building a satellite or a spacecraft on a virtual interface. Automakers like Volkswagen and BMW have also started experimenting with augmented reality, which has proved useful in their manufacturing units, keeping workers hands-free and making communication between teams easier. Meanwhile, aircraft maker Boeing is using the technology to help technicians navigate through the wires needed to connect a plane’s electrical systems.

3D printing

3D printing is a potential game changer that can completely alter the manufacturing value chain, allowing a shift from mass production to full customisation and from centralised to distributed production. Most manufacturing companies are using it to create product prototypes, reduce design-to-manufacturing cycle times and alter the economics of production. According to industry experts, prototyping (55 per cent), production (43 per cent) and proof of concept models (41 per cent) have been the three most popular 3D printing applications in 2018. Offering customised products and services is also increasing as manufacturers rely on 3D printing to streamline and grow their mass customisation and build-to-order product strategies. Manufacturers are, moreover, finding 3D printing useful for enhancing production flexibility, thereby increasing sales and driving revenue growth.

As 3D printing technology is additive, manufacturers are able to use minimum material to fabricate a part. Another key advantage of 3D printing technology over traditional manufacturing tools is that it enables product modification. It is much simpler and more cost effective to alter the product design in a 3D printer’s software than resetting tools in a factory. The technology is, therefore, ideal for low-volume goods such as craft items and prosthetics. Moreover, as it deposits material only where it is needed, 3D printing is suitable for making lightweight and complex shapes for high-value products such as aircraft and cars. The technology is being increasingly used for customer products. For instance, Ford Motors, which is among the early adopters of the technology, is exploring 3D printing for crafting personalised car parts for customers. Nike is using 3D printing to manufacture iPhone cases.

The way ahead

While the adoption of next-generation technologies is redefining manufacturing processes across the industry, manufacturers are presented with the challenge of updating and digitalising their systems to keep pace with changing technologies. Further, ensuring a talent pool that can enable technological innovations in manufacturing processes will be critical to embrace the opportunities offered by Industry 4.0.

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