Industry 4.0: turning theory into reality

Everyone can name drop ‘Industry 4.0’ into conversations, but when it comes to putting theory into practice just what is the level of understanding among those having to move their production into the smart factory era? Bluefin Solutions’ Nick Heath provides some key practical steps to making the dream a reality.

It has been widely suggested that the fourth industrial revolution (sometimes referred to as Industry 4.0) started on or around 2010 – the confluence of fast internet connections and the widespread use of smart mobile devices and IT embracing social, mobile, analytics and cloud-based platforms.

However, while this revolution has now been rumbling for six years, there’s still a lot of uncertainty around the topic. Recently, I’ve been increasingly asked, “Can you explain what a smart factory is?” or “How do we upgrade to a smart factory?”

It’s not my intention to define ‘smart factory’ here; just use Google for that – it takes less than two minutes! What I will provide though, are some practical steps to start the journey to Industry 4.0.

How do I start my smart factory journey?

Think beyond today

Production personnel often rely on automation control systems to streamline and control discrete production processes. To drive real change and deliver reduced costs and increased competitiveness requires a change of mind-set from not just the shop floor, but right across the business.

There’s a need to think in terms of broader ‘ideal world’ scenarios and ensure ideas aren’t dismissed until weighted and measured initiatives are brought together to visualise the broader, long-term roadmap. Identifying key stakeholders and systematically collecting as many ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could…’ statements as possible is vital to ensuring true potential is realised.

Look at existing IT assets

Understanding what the wider IT landscape looks like away from shop floor systems has the potential to significantly reduce project costs. Existing license deals are often so good that software savings of up to 80% are possible.

Aside from core ERP systems, there will be existing applications that can be leveraged, such as analytics platforms, enterprise performance tools and mobile-ready user interfaces. Don’t just limit this to internal systems; consider sister factories and third parties such as suppliers, maintenance providers, innovation partners and regulatory bodies.

Collaborate with IT

Build a partnership with IT based on access to data and information. There should be no need for costly and complex changes to core back office systems and processes. An effective smart factory initiative is usually agile, real time, cloud-based and accessed by multiple channels and device types.

Team up with the right partner

Find partners that understand your applications, best practices and standards, such as ISA95, necessary for effective and robust integration. They should be keen to explore the, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could…’ scenarios and be able to offer insight from existing case studies, solution mock-ups and proofs of concept.

Explore beneficial internal relationships

Nick Heath, director of manufacturing, Bluefin Solutions.

Seek out and develop other high-value internal business partnerships with sales, marketing, customer service, procurement and distribution. Production data in widely accessible systems is often the key enabler in the wider push for ‘top floor’ driven smart factory transformation activities.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice is to stop talking about Industry 4.0-connected “smart factories”, and start creating one. You don’t have to make huge changes all at once – ‘Think big. Start small. Act fast!’