Published date 17 February 2023

What is Industry 4.0?

Metro Mayor standing with people at table

We increasingly hear the term "Industry 4.0", but what does it mean?

It defines the next major step that industry will take and is so named because it is potentially as significant as the previous three industrial revolutions.

"Industry 4.0 is the pursuit of an entirely connected and autonomous supply chain, extending all the way from the customer to the most minor supplier". By definition, this must include all the processes that exist within your own company.

There are two emergent technologies that are fundamental to Industry 4.0. The first is communications, the speed of which are reaching unprecedented levels. The second, is the rise of artificial intelligence (AI).

These two fundamental pillars of technology are the reason that if we start to read a paper on Industry 4.0, we are immediately assaulted with techno-buzzwords like 5G, Cloud Computing, EDGE Computing and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

So, what does that have to do with me as a manufacturer? To achieve the fully connected and autonomous supply chain, we cannot exist as a manually controlled, unconnected island in that supply chain. One of the reasons we wish to collect data from machines is to implement an electronic, automated demand and execution system. If we know the status of any particular manufacturing process, we can ensure that it is fed with product or materials from upstream in the process at a precise time. To achieve this, we need to ensure that equipment is closely coupled.  This is where IIoT and EDGE Computing come in. These technologies allow machines to communicate with one another, and the process of analysing data close to the source allows intelligent machine-based decisions on process control, product routing and machine allocation in real-time.

If we are to strive towards autonomy, we need to know about the efficiency of our manufacturing process and the details of each element within it. For example, repeatability, material wastage, quality levels, scrap rates, tool wear and processing time. Each of these data points coupled to a machine learning system can refine the process flow to optimise these parameters.

The next pillar of Industry 4.0 or the 'Smart Factory' is the concept of 'flexibility'. To maximise the best use of equipment and minimise downtime due to equipment being configured solely for other work, it is important to build flexibility into the shopfloor. Many forward-thinking plant managers are now using 5G and Wi-Fi IIoT to allow connectivity to be maintained regardless of where a machine is placed. All of these initiatives are working towards a more responsive business that can reconfigure at a moment’s notice and implement the needs of the customer based on a considerably reduced lead time. At the same time, a more flexible factory that can maintain uptime for more of its machines will see shorter return on investment for those machines, resulting in reduced costs.

Industry 4.0 is all about competitive advantage and the choice has to be made between reliance on manual tasking and decision-making or the complete automation of the factory control function.

Industry 4.0 is a journey that requires a strategy. The strategy should inform a plan for a series of small incremental changes that together will transform how the business operates. The Made Smarter West of England programme is here to help you start that journey.

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