Buzzwords fly around in industry like wasps at a picnic. Industry 4.0 is one of these hugely popular concepts, particularly when it comes to manufacturing. Here Steve Hughes, managing director of REO UK, gives further insight into Industry 4.0.
The first industrial revolution saw the development of mechanisation using water and steam power. The second was the introduction of electricity in manufacturing environments, which facilitated the shift to mass production. The digital revolution happened during our lifetime, using electronics and IT to further automate manufacturing.
Industry 4.0 is the fourth in this series of industrial revolutions. Although it is still, relatively speaking, in its infancy, the idea relies on sophisticated software and machines that communicate with each other to optimise production.
In Industry 4.0, strong emphasis is placed on the role of intelligent factories. They are energy efficient organisations based on high-tech, adaptable and ergonomic production lines. Smart factories aim to integrate customers and business partners, while also being able to manufacture and assemble customised products.
Industry 4.0 is more about machines doing the work and interpreting the data, than relying on human intelligence. The human element is still central to the manufacturing process, but fulfils a control, programming and servicing role rather than a shop floor function.
The Siemens (IW 1000/34) Electronic Works facility in Amberg, Germany, is a good example of the next generation of smart plants. The 108,000 square-foot high-tech facility is home to an array of smart machines that coordinate everything from the manufacturing line to the global distribution of the company's products.
Despite the endless variables within the facility, a Gartner industry study conducted in 2010 found that the plant boasts a reliability rate of more than 99 per cent, with only 15 defects in every million finished products.
Thanks to the data processing capacity of Industry 4.0-ready devices, it is possible to generate the information, statistics and trends that allow manufacturers to make their production lean and more fuel efficient.
If you work in the food manufacturing industry, you probably know that many production lines today operate at less than 60 per cent efficiency, which means there is considerable room for improvement. Saving electricity and water are also key requirements for modern plant managers, who can achieve their eco-friendly goals by using smart plant connectivity.
The great news is that a lot of the technology associated with Industry 4.0 already exists. The not so great news is that implementing it will probably cost your company a pretty penny, especially if you aim to be an early adaptor.
What the future holds
For most automation companies, the move will be a gradual one, an evolution rather than a revolution. This is why continuity with older systems will still be essential for manufacturing in the years to come.
Industry 4.0 will ultimately represent a significant change in manufacturing and industry. In the long run, the sophisticated software implanted in factory equipment could help machines self-regulate and make more autonomous decisions. Decentralisation also means tasks currently performed by a central master computer will be taken over by system components.
In years to come, geographical and data boundaries between factories could become a thing of the past, with smart plants joining up sites located in different places around the world.
Industry 4.0 is an excellent opportunity for UK industries to apply their skills and technologies to gradually start the shift towards smarter factories. New technologies will also lead to more flexible, sustainable and eco-friendly production and manufacturing lines. The first step is taking the Industry 4.0 concept from the land of buzzwords, to the land of research and development.