Industry 4.0 – a machine builder’s perspective

Posted on 30 Jan 2015 by Jonny Williamson

As interest builds for the concept of Industry 4.0, Omron’s Karl Walker looks at the practicalities behind its implementation and what this means for machine builders.

Karl Walker, Omron Automation Products Marketing Manager
Karl Walker, marketing manager, automation products, Omron.

Introduced as a concept at the Hannover Messe in 2011 to describe and connect trends across different industries, Industry 4.0 has evolved to herald a new paradigm in manufacturing.

Why 4.0 you might ask? The concept indicates that this is the fourth industrial revolution, and is a change in approach to manufacturing as radical as the transition of the late 1700s from hand production methods to machines and industrial processes.

We could define a second industrial revolution, extending from the latter half of the 19th Century until the early 1900s, and culminating in early factory electrification, mass production and the production line. The third industrial revolution is generally thought of as the transition from analogue to digital technology, and specifically in industrial terms to the move to digital computing and digital communications through the last years of the 20th Century.

This brings us to Industry 4.0, defined loosely as the computerisation of manufacturing. Related to other buzz phrases such as the ‘lights out’ factory, the ‘connected factory’ or even the ‘cyber factory’, it refers more specifically to a shift towards self-organising manufacturing operations, with a greater distribution of intelligence towards individual machines and components.

From steam to digital, the industrial revolution continues.
From steam to digital, the industrial revolution continues.

Under Industry 4.0, production lines will reconfigure themselves automatically in order to optimise productivity. Some of that will be driven from above, with production lines responding dynamically to new or amended production orders, tying in seamlessly with logistics and the wider business. Some will be driven from the product itself, communicating with the line to determine the optimal route through the production process.

For example, if there is a bottleneck at some point the production line, the product will recognise this and look to see if there are other processes that might be accomplished first, and instruct the line to reroute its progress.

Industry 4.0 also brings a higher degree of flexibility to the manufacturing process. This again is the logical next step to a process that has already taken us from mechanical line changeovers from one product type to another, to push-button line reconfiguration.

The scope of Omron's Sysmac platform from data to machine.
The scope of Omron’s Sysmac platform from data to machine.

Under Industry 4.0, a single line will accommodate any type of product without the need for a changeover from one batch to another, for example through parts or products modifying robot profiles as they move along the line.

If all of this sounds highly futuristic and well beyond the realms of what is achievable today, then it shouldn’t, because actually it is simply an extension of the communications discussion that has dominated control systems design for the last two decades or more.

In particular, while it might seem to imply the need for a green-field manufacturing site with a ground-up design that implements the ideals of Industry 4.0 from the outset, it actually impacts on machine builders in a much more practical way.

The two key aspects to consider are the handling of data around the machine – and in particular the transformations on that data to turn it into useful information – and the flow of information between the machine, the wider production environment and the higher level enterprise.

One machine network
Don’t think of Industry 4.0 simply as a concept with only theoretical appeal.

There is greater intelligence, now, in all automation components, and a greater emphasis on networking means that information is accessible anywhere. The latest control platforms, such as Omron’s Sysmac controllers, can create, integrate and act on that information at high speed, making best use of the data made visible by the machine and the information transferred to and from higher-level systems.

Because this all happens at the hardware level, rather than in software or middleware where the functions have traditionally resided, the control system is able to deliver the real-time interaction required for truly dynamic production lines.

The fact that the intelligence, speed, power and communications capabilities to enable Industry 4.0 concepts to be implemented today is a powerful reason in its own right to push forward with the latest automation offerings. But these same characteristics are also important aspects of the drive towards improved OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) scores, improved preventative maintenance capabilities and reduced total cost of ownership.

So don’t think of Industry 4.0 simply as a concept with only theoretical appeal. Dig a little deeper and there is much practical substance, with control paradigms that can be implemented today to deliver real benefits in all areas of production. For more information, click here.