Industry 4.0 is not a new term. Notably, the cluster of technologies he describes – which includes cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing and cognitive computing / artificial intelligence (AI) – is almost ten years old. And while significant technical advances continue to be made almost daily, many of the most interesting developments in this space have less to do with the technology itself and more to how that technology is integrated and applied to optimize processes and maximize impact.
The coveted digital transformation requires not only technical architecture, but also a deeper understanding of how to harness the unique potential of Industry 4.0 technologies. The process begins with the recognition that continuous integration, real-time communication and the ability to create manufacturing environments that are virtual, interchangeable, more decentralized and modular have the potential to radically reshape the industry landscape.
With that big picture in mind, let’s take a closer look at how these trends are doing and what kind of advances in Industry 4.0 will shape the coming years.
More efficiency: how and why?
The general uncertainty and lack of understanding about exactly what Industry 4.0 is – and how to implement it – postponed the use of the concept and / or mitigated the impact on the first organizations to use it. Technology has matured in recent years and most importantly, a growing number of companies are recognizing that investing large amounts of time and money in installing smart sensors and new systems is not enough if they do not first dedicate time to ensure that these updates are smart and strategic. The realization that technology is just one piece of the puzzle was a crucial evolution to unlock the full potential of digital transformations driven by Industry 4.0. More connectivity, transparency and speed are achievable. More speed, flexibility, improved customization and new efficiencies are possible, especially for those who spend less time asking what, and more time asking why and how.
Information is power
One of the striking elements in the game change of Industry 4.0 is its ability to combine technology with engineering and operations, in order to create valuable synergies between previously separate spheres. That’s why data collection, management and analysis have proven to be critical when it comes to helping companies make big leaps forward using Industry 4.0 solutions. Several organizations are investing in the infrastructure and knowledge needed to do just that. Using real-world metrics to understand which technology updates will have the greatest impact and how they can be integrated with existing systems is one of the most impactful trends in Industry 4.0.
The historic and unprecedented challenges that companies have had to face as a result of Covid-19 have reinforced how the advances in Industry 4.0 are essential. Virtual work models, unreliable supply chains and unavoidable operational disruptions highlighted the value of visibility across the process. In the chaos and uncertainty of a pandemic, access to holistic business information in real time is not a luxury, but a necessity. Ironically, the upside of the challenges driven by the pandemic is the fact that most companies have been forced to undergo a kind of involuntary stress test, providing decision makers with new insights into their systems and operations. Armed with this new understanding and sophisticated self-awareness, they can make more assertive decisions about the connectivity solutions needed to meet their needs.
Among the most important trends in Industry 4.0 are the steps that companies take to identify and implement new technological tools:
• Holistic modeling – Decision makers are clearly observing their operations before investing in any new technology. This self-examination extends well beyond the shop floor and should ultimately include a model of details of the front, back and middle office functionality. In other words, not just technical architecture, but functional workflow. The most successful digital transformations may start at the top, but they are cohesive and connected to all facets of the business, from customer relations, marketing and sales to IT, manufacturing and distribution.
• Speed and agility – In a space that continues to evolve with impressive speed, traditional corporate planning for five and ten years is simply obsolete. Companies that adopt solutions inherent to Industry 4.0 are replacing long-term planning with a long-term vision. They set long-term goals and have a clear sense of the big picture, but they also develop specific short-term plans as part of an attempt to become more agile and responsive to emerging trends and technologies.
• The human element – Finally, and perhaps the most important, is the recognition that an optimized, continuous and impactful digital transformation has less to do with Industry 4.0 technology and more with the people who use it. From interface designs to business implementations, Industry 4.0’s best tools and strategies are based on an approach that puts the user first. The combination of human potential with next generation systems and solutions is the most effective path to sustainable success.
Leonardo Vieira is Stefanini Group’s digital industry director for North America