Throughout history, technological advances have served as catalysts for meaningful societal changes, particularly in the industrial world. Steam engines sparked the first industrial revolution. Electricity was the major pillar of the second industrial revolution. Then, computers empowered a whole range of automation, sparking the third industrial revolution.
Today, we are living in a fourth industrial revolution—one that promises further automation, improved yields, and lower production costs. But unlike those that came before it, this fourth revolution is not spurred by a single technology. This revolution (or Industry 4.0) is the result of the convergence of technologies such as IoT, ubiquitous connectivity, machine learning, and others. By incorporating these technologies into manufacturing facilities, companies are aiming to produce more with less, making them better able to quickly respond to the needs of an ever-changing market.
Although the technology is available today, manufacturing plants are having difficulty incorporating it into their existing environments. It would be easier to apply these new technologies, processes, and business models if companies were starting from zero. As that is not the case, manufacturing companies are faced with the complex challenge of adjusting their existing infrastructure in order to capitalize on Industry 4.0.
These companies have invested years and millions of dollars optimizing their manufacturing facilities to be very efficient at building one specific product. This infrastructure includes water, gas, and air pipes, as well as miles of cables to provide power and to connect their various systems.
The infrastructure was designed to support a static manufacturing layout. Everything was bolted to the ground, creating perfectly aligned manufacturing lines that would incorporate a steady stream of operators to assemble and fine-tune the products they were building. It wasn’t designed to accommodate adaptable factory layouts for on-demand projects or autonomous robots roaming around freely throughout the facility.
Without that legacy infrastructure, companies would be able to move faster to incorporate the latest technologies, but the majority of opportunities today involves retrofitting existing manufacturing facilities.
Making the Move Towards industry 4.0
As companies start to evaluate their options to upgrade their infrastructure, a common question is: where should we start?
The short answer is: start by collecting data. The value of Industry 4.0 is the ability to gather live data from every asset in your factory so you can analyze it and works towards your desired outcome.
Unfortunately, the existing infrastructure makes it difficult for companies to start collecting this data. Factories might not have the real estate, budget, or expertise to add more cables to interconnect all of the assets and processes they want to monitor. Adding new cabling infrastructure is expensive, but more importantly, it doesn’t address the challenge of agility. New cabling doesn’t provide the flexibility to reorganize factory layouts, and it doesn’t account for autonomous robots who can’t haul cables and need to unload data at a base.
A better solution is to leverage the advances in wireless technology. The reason why Industry 4.0 is experiencing growth now, instead of 10 years ago, is because the technology necessary for complex solutions is readily available today. It is easier to install and manage, and is cost-effective. In the past, manufacturing facilities might have attempted to use Wi-Fi as their wireless solution, but they quickly ran into the technology’s limitations—such as blind spots, reduced bandwidth as they added more devices, and the lack of enterprise-grade security.
Today, one of the most promising solutions is using 5G connectivity indoors to create a dedicated network for the facility. In this scenario, 5G solves the issue of blind spots, has the capacity to support all of your devices (and more!), and provides enough bandwidth to store both summary data and actual raw data from the manufacturing floor to provide insights on how your facility is operating.
The Bottom Line
By adopting the Industry 4.0 approach of collecting and analyzing data across the complete manufacturing process, companies can discover insights to improve their systems or even develop new and innovative business models or relationships with their suppliers. Although this transformation is not easy, now we have the technology to support our companies through this transformation, making you more agile and able to quickly respond to the ever-changing needs of your market.