Delivering Industry 4.0: the hype and challenges

Five years after the emergence of Industry 4.0, Dr Andy Ward FIET – of Ubisense, uncovers what progress has been made towards the ‘Smart Factory of the Future’?

Industry 4.0 is connected manufacturing in which networked sensors and assembly systems automatically deliver efficiency and quality improvements.

Tracked cars on a moving assembly line, wiht tool car interactions highlighted - image courtesy of Ubisense.
Tracked cars on a moving assembly line, wiht tool car interactions highlighted – image courtesy of Ubisense.

A common vision is of systems that can sense what’s happening in the world, share that information with their peers, and react in an intelligent way to optimise the industrial process.

The first important component – process visibility – leverages advanced sensing technologies and improvements in machine-to-machine connectivity to build a God’s-eye view of a manufacturing activity.

This is big data as captured by the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), allowing planners and supervisors to understand how their processes are performing – they can see bottlenecks and inefficiencies which were previously hidden and can adjust the workflow accordingly.

But Industry 4.0 goes further, using that data to empower manufacturing automation that can make changes to the process on its own, instantly reacting to production challenges as they arise.

TM Smart Factory Expo

The Manufacturer Smart Factory Expo is the UK’s only dedicated exhibition in response to Industry 4.0

Showcasing the best solution providers and technology offerings, this unique event is for manufacturing business leaders keen to adopt the relevant tools and knowledge to drive business growth.

  •  Learn about how Industry 4.0 can improve your business
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  •  Hear how other manufacturers are dealing with the fourth industrial revolution
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  • Compare solutions across every product sector
  •  Watch live demonstrations of the latest products & how they integrate with each other
  •  Arrange face-to-face appointments with key suppliers
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For example, a factory which has received a large number of orders for a particular model of product might, within a few seconds, automatically reprioritise resources within the plant to meet that demand.

This represents a huge potential increase in the capability and flexibility of manufacturing systems, but also requires those systems to be trusted completely to make the right decisions – the plant’s productivity now depends upon them.

Location, location

To rely on automation in this way, the view of the world constructed by systems from sensor data must be complete and accurate. Only then will automated systems have enough information to make high-quality decisions which reflect the choices that well-informed process managers might make in the same circumstances.

Many aspects of the factory environment can be sensed – temperature; light level; vibration, and so on. Although these will certainly be relevant to descriptions of specific processes, it’s not always obvious how to build up a coherent picture of what is happening across a factory from these one-dimensional measurements.

Instead, some successful Industry 4.0 installations have taken the approach of tracking the precise locations within the factory of relevant items, such as work-in-progress and assembly tools.

Different parts of the factory are used for different stages of production, so location immediately reveals the stage of assembly of an item. And when two things are in the same place – a tool and some work-in-progress, say – there’s a good chance that there’s interaction happening between them.

Technologies like ultrawideband (UWB) radio now allow tracking of objects indoors to within a few tens of centimetres. By placing UWB transmitter tags on objects, and mounting networked UWB receivers around the factory, we can locate thousands of objects in a factory in real-time.

Ubisense AngleID sensor monitoring the presence of a forklift within multiple zones - image courtesy of Ubisense.
Ubisense AngleID sensor monitoring the presence of a forklift within multiple zones – image courtesy of Ubisense.

The quiet revolution

Commentators often refer to Industry 4.0 as a future technology, but these systems are already in use, and have been for some time.

Around 4% of the world’s cars, for example, are now built using Ubisense’s Smart Factory system which gives manufacturers like BMW; Daimler; VW; Honda; Ford, and GM the capability of mass customisation.

Customers now demand cheaper cars, faster delivery and, crucially, more choice. Henry Ford’s production line of 1913, where every car being produced was identical, has been superseded by one where many different car models, and many variants of each model, are being made on the same assembly line.

Now, when an assembly tool is used on a car, it must be configured to use the exact settings required for that individual vehicle. For example, a line might manufacture cars with a composite bonnet and other cars with a steel bonnet, and applying the torque required to screw in a steel bonnet to a composite part might cause irreparable damage.

But by precisely tracking the location of tools and cars in the factory, Ubisense’s system spots when a tool is working on a particular car, and automatically configures the tool for the car it is working on, without operator intervention.

Of course, this is a mission-critical system and production depends on it always making the correct choices.

Barriers to increased Industry 4.0 adoption

Firstly, manufacturers are genetically cautious: there are many more ways to break a working process than improve it. Industry 4.0 is a big change – perhaps the biggest since the invention of mass production – which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s a good reason why Industry 4.0 won’t be adopted wholesale, instantly.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, assembly plants have historically been driven by the shop floor, with IT providing a supporting function. But Industry 4.0 is the digitisation of manufacturing, with IT taking a leading role right down to the level of process controls. This is going to involve adjustment and a blurring of lines between departments.

To learn more about the Ubisense Smart Factory, visit the website.

But end-to-end real-time connectivity of all things can be done in stages. Industry 4.0 can be adopted in islands, building local connectivity that doesn’t even need to leave the line, let alone the plant.

The best path forward is to avoid the bigger barriers, and quickly implement projects which demonstrate the value of real-time visibility in process control even at modest scale. Then connect the islands once they have paid for themselves with positive return-on-investment.

By that point the decision to make a strategic investment in Industry 4.0 won’t be a risk, but an inevitability.

Like any new technology, there are challenges to overcome in order to achieve more widespread adoption, particularly in the relatively conservative manufacturing sector, but new products allow step-by-step introduction of the concept, and it seems a good bet that when it comes to factories, Smart will soon become the new Standard.