Talk of Industry 4.0 means we’re entering a fourth industrial revolution, and engineers and IT professionals need to be prepared. The first industrial revolution of mechanization occurred around 1765. Tools became machines. The second came about because of new energy sources and the internal combustion engine providing the power needed to drive industry. Automation came on the scene around 1969 and kicked off the third industrial revolution, leading to computer-based controls and robotics.
And now, here we are living in the fourth industrial revolution: the digitization of data and systems that transform that data into information — information that operators, CEOs, and all layers in between can use to make decisions or be presented with context and recommended actions to take by the manufacturing execution systems (MES). And as if that weren’t enough, automation can use the information generated to make decisions to heal itself during downtime or optimize production schedules through artificial intelligence (AI). Yep, this is a fantastic and exciting time to be in manufacturing.
But the MES and AI need something. They need digital data. Enter the primary component of Industry 4.0: digital transformation. Systems need digital data. And not just some of the data — ALL the data. And not anytime you can upload it, but now, in real-time. You can no longer rely on people running around with clipboards, checking boxes, or end-of-shift meetings to generate quality data when uploaded later that day or the next.
Real-time production data is a challenging endeavor because large OEMs have enormous data sources, and the MES needs all of it in a digital format. This transformation is expensive and time consuming to produce. However, any Industry 4.0 initiative will only ever be as good as the completeness of the digital transformation. They are bound together.
Another significant component of Industry 4.0 and enabler of digital transformation is IIOT: the industrial internet of things. IIOT is about getting relevant information to people when and how they need it. With a smartphone, you can communicate, do your banking and investing, be entertained, and know where your kids went instead of where they said they were going. But to do this, we had to agree to digitize our lives, and now the manufacturing industry must do the same. Smart devices, such as switches, valves, drives, robots, fastening equipment, and operator stations, were invented for this purpose. They can generate real-time digital data and even self-diagnose. These IIOT devices provide the real-time digital data required to drive Industry 4.0.
Finally, it wouldn’t be fair to leave out the importance of the integrator. Industry 4.0 is highly complex and needs large quantities of very highly skilled integrators to make this happen. In many cases, the technology evolves right in the middle of the integration. Improvements in software, communications, and networks plus the changing demands of information dashboards and KPIs mean that integrators must learn and execute on the fly. It’s a challenging time for them as well.
Industry 4.0? Exciting time? You bet it is!