Industry 4.0: A sustainable roadmap for midsized manufacturers

Slow and steady rather than unplanned rush wins the Industry 4.0 race. Helen Saunders offers seven tips on starting your digitalisation journey.

Industry 4.0 Robot Robotics Robots Cobot Cobots Collaborative Robot Automation - Stock
References to ‘Industry 4.0′ seem to be everywhere, along with dire warnings for those not keeping up with their peers.

It’s easy to be paralysed by the fear of being behind the curve, especially when that curve is an actual revolution.

References to ‘Industry 4.0’ (Fourth Industrial Revolution) seem to be everywhere, along with warnings of the dire consequences for British manufacturing of not keeping up with our peers, and new competitors are emerging from the (3D-printed) woodwork at every turn.

Industry 4.0 certainly brings new promises to the plant floor, including lower operating costs, better visibility, improved overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and faster speed to market of new product lines.

But, as with earlier revolutions, progress, while potentially transformational, is not necessarily immediate and in fact is often hard won. The truth is that a significant portion of Industry 4.0-related initiatives fail.

In fact, a recent study by Cisco showed only 26% of Internet of Things (IoT) projects are considered a complete success. The other 74% represent IoT projects that are still in process, those that are delayed and some which failed outright (roughly 15%).

If you haven’t already begun your Industry 4.0 journey in earnest, don’t panic! You can reassure yourself that you haven’t yet made any costly mistakes. You can learn from the mistakes of others and avoid the pitfalls by considering these seven key steps to digitalisation.

This article first appeared in the June issue of The Manufacturer magazine. To subscribe, please click here.

1. Be realistic

It’s tempting to rush into attempting to reengineer your whole business, particularly if you fear you’re lagging behind the market. However, if you focus on your entire plant, then your chances of success will be much lower.

Try starting with a smaller project in a key focus area – perhaps an area that has the most downtime, the most maintenance, the most energy consumption – something specific and measurable.

4IR Iot industry 4.0 concept,industrial engineer using smart glasses with augmented mixed with virtual reality technology to monitoring machine in real time.Smart factory use Automation robot arm – image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Instead of connecting your whole factory, which may be the end-goal, try and keep the project manageable – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

And keep the project manageable. Instead of connecting your whole factory, which may be the end-goal, perhaps look at introducing location-based services to better manage your assets and then move up from there.

It is important to think about how you will scale. If you are successful, what’s next? While it’s important to avoid being paralysed by fear of the magnitude of digitalisation, you also want to avoid lulling yourself into a false sense of security that you’ve ticked the Industry 4.0 box when in reality you’re only just getting started.

2. Know what success looks like

There’s something about the latest trending term that can make otherwise level-headed professionals jump headfirst on to a bandwagon without their usual level of caution or preparation. Regardless of the relevance of Industry 4.0, fear or enthusiasm is no excuse for diving straight in with no clear goal, objective or full understanding of return on investment (ROI).

Determine what you are trying to achieve, then measure it before and after any Industry 4.0 project. For example, what’s your unplanned downtime today? Where do you want it to be? By when?

Applying the same rigour to digitalising your operations as you do to other strategic investments or process improvements will ensure that you consider everything that’s relevant when deciding whether to commit time and effort – and that you can say for certain if it was worth doing so.

3. Build from technology up

It’s stating the obvious, but connecting your manufacturing operations is only possible with the right technology. Not only do you need to get to grips with new kit and software to realise the many promised benefits of Industry 4.0, but you also need the expertise of people who know IoT technology, and who have done it before – successfully and securely.

Your in-house IT department, vendor or outsourced IT provider should have significant expertise in orchestrating data flows across your operations and your business, or be able and willing to highlight the gaps in their knowledge and experience.

It’s important to engage with them and get them involved in your plans at an early stage and definitely not after you’ve ordered equipment and re-designed the production line.

4. There’s no ‘O’ or ‘I’ in ‘team’

Industrial Data Summit: Why does UK manufacturing waste so much of its data? - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
The tidal wave of data coming from factories will require data analysis, which may bring new computing requirements – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

The days when operations could implement network-related technology projects without IT are gone, or at least close to extinction. Success is much more likely to be achieved by working closely together.

For example, the tidal wave of data coming from your factory will require data analysis. That might bring new computing requirements, which is where IT will help. It can also bring new security risks – a key area in which IT can help, but only by fully understanding operational requirements.

Not only do you need IT involved, but you also need buy-in from the whole leadership team. This can help you with driving support across your organisation, and ensures your Industry 4.0 initiatives are aligned with corporate objectives, such as sustainability or security. And by aligning, you may just find supporters in unexpected quarters.

5. Understand and address security risks

Connecting data from the factory to therest of the business, or opening up remote access all the way down to the plant floor, can potentially open up security risks. With any digital manufacturing project, your attack surface is likely to expand. This is where operations and IT collaboration can bring big value to your organisation.

Carefully evaluate the potential risks and impact of those risks, then focus on the most serious. You probably can’t address all of them immediately, but you can, and should, find a trusted partner to perform a security assessment to help you evaluate and prioritise those risks.

Recent high-profile ransomware attacks targeting the manufacturing sector have illustrated the risk of operations grinding to a halt if a hacker wreaks havoc. The threats are real – don’t leave security to chance.

6. Avoid data overload

Although you can pretty much connect everything and indeed everyone to the internet, be sparing about what actually needs to be connected.

For example, if you are interested in improving product quality on one of your production lines, you don’t want to suffer from data overload. Keep your data set manageable and use basic statistical analysis to look for outlier data.

You might also consider using edge analytics (‘fog computing’) to reduce the data volume for later analysis. Working with a vendor or partner who has experience with analytics software designed to look at manufacturing data and glean actionable results from that data is an option if that level of extremely granular analysis would be valuable to you.

Otherwise, keep it simple and work with what you need and might realistically use now or in the medium term.

7. Know your limits

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Regardless of the size of your manufacturing business, the path to digitalisation is probably one you have not trodden before.

Regardless of the size of your manufacturing business, the path to digitalisation is probably one you have not trodden before. One of the UK government’s key concerns is the digital skills gap, so it’s entirely possible, if not very likely that you and your team don’t currently have the skills or the experience to tackle Industry 4.0 with confidence.

But there’s no need to panic. Map your current capabilities to those that are needed, and the first might be the capability to work out what you don’t have!

Start with technology and HR, and approach the topic with sensitivity and awareness, whether your resource is inhouse or through a vendor or outsourced provider. Work together to establish the gaps and identify where you need external advice.

Although the prospect of paying for advice might be unattractive, especially against a backdrop of further investment, it is often cheaper to get the right opinion early on, so that you can plan to up-skill or recruit or contract to fill the gaps in the most appropriate way.

You want a revolution that will mark the beginning of a successful transformation, not a coup d’état that happens overnight, or worse – one that fails. The better you plan out how to avoid the potential roadblocks to Industry 4.0, the more prepared you will be to mitigate them when they inevitably arise.

When it comes to Industry 4.0, manufacturers will either do it right or they will do it over. Which option will you go for?


Helen Saunders, strategic & executive communications – Cisco Advanced Services.