Industry 4.0: automated connectivity

Industry 4.0 is considered to be the future, though only adopted by a few manufacturers. How can more manufacturers unlock the opportunities that it offers? Stephen Dyson, head of Industry 4.0 at digital manufacturing service provider Proto Labs, offers first-hand advice.

The excitement surrounding Industry 4.0 is tangible. Undeniably, the so-called fourth industrial revolution is creating change, opening up new opportunities through leveraging digital manufacturing, robotics, and automation. But for many manufacturers, Industry 4.0 poses a more prosaic concern: if digital manufacturing and automation are the future, how do they adopt across their organisation?

A lot of the discussion around Industry 4.0 has focused more on the destination, rather than the journey. Web-connected manufacturing processes based on advanced automation and robotics, delivering unparalleled levels of productivity, quality, and efficiency—and opening the door to wholly new business models, such as servitisation, and build-to-order.

The challenge lies making it happen—the details of getting from where businesses are today, to a future characterised by digital manufacturing and high levels of automation. And it’s a journey that affects not just the factory floor, but the broader business and the supply chain beyond it. Because Industry 4.0 isn’t just a different approach to manufacturing, it’s also an entirely new take on supply chain management.

A different paradigm

Consider the impact of Industry 4.0 and digital manufacturing on traditional manufacturing and business processes. The world of Industry 4.0 is one of ultra-short lead times, on-demand production, mass customisation, and an opportunity for manufacturers—irrespective of size—to compete on a global stage.

So, the traditional value chain—factory to wholesaler, wholesaler to retailer, and retailer to consumer, with each stage buffered by large stocks of inventory—is adroitly side-stepped by digital connectivity. Customers can order products directly, interacting with online product configuration tools and web-based ERP order-taking systems. And once the order has been received, manufacturing and fulfilment can follow automatically.

Some manufacturers will be tempted to dismiss this as hype, or science fiction. But they do so at their peril: in business after business, Industry 4.0 is starting to happen, as manufacturers piece together digital manufacturing techniques with web connectivity so as to dramatically transform the art of the possible.

Connected manufacturing

At Proto Labs, for instance, we use advanced 3D printing, CNC machining, and injection moulding technologies to produce parts within days, making us the world's fastest digital manufacturing source for custom prototypes and low volume production parts, offering unprecedented speed to market for product designers and engineers worldwide.

The power of the approach, it’s important to stress, lies not just in the individual pieces of production technology that we use, but in the way that digital manufacturing makes those technologies available within an end-to-end digital process that starts with the customer, and ends with a part being shipped perhaps just a day after it has been ordered.

Our web-based automated quoting system, for instance, provides real time pricing provided by proprietary software that translates digital 3D CAD models into instructions for high speed manufacturing equipment. Expert application engineers assist with part related questions, and improve service and material selection. Design analysis takes place within hours, not days. And all underpinned by a web based business model, making our services easy and convenient to use—whether you’re in Birmingham, Bangalore, or Brisbane.

Making the leap

Fairly obviously, such capabilities represent a very different paradigm from conventional business models and the traditional value chain. They require investment in integration, for instance. Back office systems need updating, and customer-facing web applications developed. Analytics matter more. And businesses typically find that their workforce skill profile needs to change—traditional manufacturing skills become less important, while skill sets in digital manufacturing, robotics, and automation become more important.

To some, Industry 4.0 looks a lot like the 1980s-era ‘lights out’ factory, where automation was supposed to completely replace people, and robots ruled. That never happened, of course. Not because the technology wasn’t up to it, but because the underlying business model hadn’t changed. Not so with Industry 4.0, where the focus isn’t so much on the technology, but on the business benefits that the technology can deliver.

Embrace the business benefits from technological advances during Industry 4.0 is Proto Labs’ advice. At its simplest, digital manufacturing is a series of connections, joining customers to business processes and production technologies. So, start making those connections, viewing each new connection as a further step on the digital manufacturing journey that ends with Industry 4.0.