After the lean manufacturing movement of the 1970s, the outsourcing efforts of the 1990s and the great achievements and productivity brought-on by automation in the 2000s, we now find ourselves at the beginning of a 4th revolution. Industry 4.0 is being built on a sophisticated network of connectivity and driven by varying degrees of artificial intelligence (AI).
This next revolution is about bridging gaps between advancements already made in different, detached silos of business and manufacturing. The first area is data collection and processing. Companies now have access to more primary and secondary data than ever before. Terabytes of information have been acquired from both internal and external sources like trade organizations, universities, research firms and internal departments including marketing, sales, operations and R&D. Out of necessity they began developing analytics software to help make sense of all this information. They created a way of turning trillions of binary 0s and 1s into something that operational decisions could be based upon. However, oftentimes the bandwidth to process and act on all this data is lacking and its value isn’t fully realized.
Another area of great advancement lies in machine technology and user interface development. What were once complicated, novel technologies being forced into our every day lives, are now user-friendly tools that make doing work much easier and more efficient. We have become increasingly-comfortable with technology in our pocket, in our car, on our desks and now on the shop floor. Some new machines, like 3-d printers, allow almost instantaneous prototyping and much quicker manufacturing speeds. From ideation to order inputting to production and delivery, the process can now be done faster with the aid of new technology and automation.
Industry 4.0 is the way of bringing these advancements together, removing the gaps, finding more ways to feed the system with information and empowering it to react more quickly. The goal is to allow all the different areas of business, logistics and manufacturing to talk with each other – and to talk with us. Industry 4.0 will exemplify how varying degrees of AI can help us more-quickly discover opportunity, make the best decisions and implement at a pace that outperforms competition and exceeds customer expectations. This is value that, in the near-term, many analysts believe will help early-adopters outperform competition from over seas, which relies so heavily on low labor costs as their main value differentiator.
Imagine a highly-intelligent system that can autonomously predict market trends, process incoming orders, recommend design variations, order necessary raw materials and carry out all required processes including setup, production, shipment and tracking. Envision an AI-based network that monitors the location of inbound supplies, the approaching deadlines of customer orders and considers the bandwidth of shop floor machinery and personnel to decide the most effective and efficient production schedule possible. New machines will retrieve raw materials and bring it from storage to the right workstations with near perfect precision. Sensors alert plant workers of potential inefficiencies, damage to equipment or inaccuracies in manufactured outputs. Reports and virtual operations status can be viewed from anywhere in the world on your smartphone.
Think this perfectly-synchronized dance is years away? Think again. Trumpf Gruppe is a well-known German-based manufacturer of metal fabrication machinery. They recently began construction on a 5,500 square meter demo facility located just outside of Chicago. This large, fully functioning plant will show how Industry 4.0 is really capable of changing the metal fabrication business. New product lines of equipment, all containing Trumpf’s proprietary TruConnect technology, are being designed and brought online to optimize this new era of manufacturing. And while you might think this type of technology is reserved for the large, industry heavyweights, think again. The company explains that this facility’s main target audience is “small and medium-sized job shops who are just starting out with digital connectivity.”