Industry 4.0: don’t get left behind

Industry 4.0, smart manufacturing, big data, IoT, advanced manufacturing intelligence… you’ve heard all the buzzwords, but what do they really mean, and what’s their relevance to your manufacturing business?

If you’ve considered any of these concepts, you may have decided that Industry 4.0 is something for the future. It’s for big manufacturing companies with highly automated production lines, and, if you ever do something about it, it will be a major, high-risk, expensive project that takes months – if not years, to roll out.

If you believe Industry 4.0 is not for your manufacturing business, it might be time to think again…

Our most recent customer encapsulated the core concepts of Industry 4.0 using MESTEC software in a matter of weeks. It equipped every one of its factory floor operators with touch screen tablet devices procured from a store on the High Street for just £80 each.  The devices provide operators with up-to-date schedules of work and live references to drawings and work instructions and allow them to feed-back inventory consumption and job progress data in real-time.  Managers now have live visibility of WIP and inventory levels allowing decision makers to proactively drive planning decisions and improvement activity.  All this would have been impossible or prohibitively expensive before the proliferation of easily networked, low cost devices and associated services that are the core to the Industry 4.0 revolution.

What’s the big idea?

If you cut through the hype and examine the parts of the ‘smart factory’ agenda that are relevant to your business, you’ll see that its basic design principles make a lot of sense.

The four design principles of Industry 4.0 are interoperability, information transparency, technical assistance and decentralised decisions. Let’s look at what each of these principles really mean.

Interoperability

Interoperable systems communicate with each other. At the very least, your computer system will be networked. The availability of network-ready plant and sensors has enabled factories to more easily connect equipment on the factory floor to their company networks, enabling easier data sharing and automation. Interoperability is the essence of the Internet of Things (IoT).

In highly automated factories, plant interoperability enables you to calculate metrics such as Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE). However, many smaller factories aren’t highly automated, instead relying on manual labour to operate machines, execute manual processes and move components and sub-assemblies around the factory floor. The smooth running of this type of factory relies on the communication between people.

While Industry 4.0 talks about ‘cyber physical systems’ working autonomously, in reality, for today, a more pragmatic approach is to enable ‘people interoperability’ by having operators provide real-time information about what they’re doing. For example, tapping a touchscreen or scanning a barcode could signal that an operator has just started a new assembly, or completed a sub-assembly. In fact, using this approach we can capture an extremely detailed record of what they’ve worked on, how long everything took and what challenges they experienced along the way. All this information will be immediately available to all company departments in the context of their functions thereby introducing true [data] interoperability in manual and automated environments alike.

Information transparency

The second smart factory design principle is about making sense of raw data – whether you’ve collected it from sensors, machines or people. In the context of labour-intensive manufacturing, extracting information from data could mean having the data analytics in place to calculate key performance indicators for labour productivity metrics. This may include overall labour effectiveness (which quantifies how your people are performing, much like OEE does for your plant), scrap/yield rates and on-time in full (OTIF). Once you’ve collected and aggregated the data, data analytics systems become capable of producing whatever information you need to drive real plant improvements.

Technical assistance

The third design principle focuses on visualising information to make it comprehensible, to support decision-making and enable solutions to urgent problems. The use of graphical dashboards make it easy to assimilate this information at a glance; to see trends in labour productivity or track any KPI.

However, as well as visualising trend information, solving problems often calls for root-cause analysis – the ability to drill down from the high-level dashboard information to find out exactly why performance is down. For example, identifying which workstation, process or task is causing a bottleneck.

Decentralised decisions

The final design principle proposes a world of autonomous decision-making on the factory floor. For highly automated production environments, this implies some degree of artificial intelligence, which enables a machine to take actions that maximise its chance of success to achieve a specific goal.

Again, for factories that are more dependent on manual labour, we can take a more pragmatic approach. A good example is sharing the information we extract from the real-time data collection with operators on the factory floor. By giving operators real-time feedback about their performance, they can immediately address any gaps in training or process steps that might be affecting productivity, for example. This simple principle of sharing information with operators enables them to take ownership of their performance.

Enabling technology

MESTEC’s solution, which comprises software provided as a service (or ‘SaaS’), with interactivity enabled through affordable tablet computers or any device with a web browser, supports all four Industry 4.0 design principles outlined above. In designing our solution, we have focused on what is traditionally the most expensive and hardest-to-measure manufacturing asset: labour.

In creating a workable Industry 4.0 solution, we have also addressed many of the adoption challenges that manufacturers face. For example, the need to maintain integrity of production processes – our approach fits around your existing processes rather than forcing you to re-design them. Whereas highly automated production plant usually requires high levels of capital investment, our software is available on a monthly subscription model. And we avoid IT snags that might threaten production by hosting software and data in the cloud – there is nothing for you to install and no chance of disrupting your production environment.  We can collect useful data from devices distributed around the factory without you having to worry about changes to your existing infrastructure or plant.

Manage by fact

Industry 4.0 is more than a buzzword, it’s the way that forward-looking manufacturing companies are moving their businesses. They are ditching paper-based timesheets and manual job tracking in favour of automatically collecting accurate manufacturing data using affordable devices, and then allowing MESTEC’s ‘big data’ analytics to manage their companies by fact instead of guesswork.

Sooner or later, every manufacturer will need to harness smart factory principles in some shape or form. Those that choose to ignore these principles will get left behind.

Ready to find out more?

Please contact us as we would be delighted to discuss your manufacturing challenges and demonstrate how our rapid, low-risk solution could bring major cost savings and performance improvements to your business.