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Making Factories As Smart As The Internet

The fourth industrial revolution – in which production systems combine with cloud computing, Big Data, and the web to improve efficiency – is already taking place. But where will it leave the UK?

Factory technology

If the first industrial revolution was about mechanisation, water power and steam power, the second about mass production and electricity, and the third about the impact of computers and automation, then the fourth industrial revolution is all about information – the power of linking physical systems to the internet.

The fourth industrial revolution – Industry 4.0, or Industrie 4.0 – as it is sometimes known – creates what is often referred to as the ‘smart factory’ and includes cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things, cloud computing and Big Data.

The concept revolves around linking factory systems to the internet in systems that open up the means to boost production and produce goods more efficiently – and with more flexibility – than ever before. According to the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), Industry 4.0 “essentially means smart, flexible factories, where machines capture more data and convey more useful data to business operators, so that they can make quicker, better decisions about how something is manufactured”. Robert Golightly of Massachusetts based smart manufacturing and supply chain management software firm AspenTech explains further: “Modern manufacturing is an ecosystem of interconnected software and hardware that helps companies optimise plants and achieve operational excellence. As businesses generate vast amounts of data, efficient decision support solutions are needed to make sense of vital information and ensure operations can adapt quickly to dynamic conditions.”

Industry 4.0 ‘began life as marketing strategy’

Today the terms Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things (IoT) are widely discussed in engineering and manufacturing, but they are relatively recent in origin. ‘INDUSTRIE 4.0’ was initially identified by the German Government as one of ten ‘Future Projects’ as part of its High-Tech Strategy 2020 Action Plan. As such, it began life “as a marketing opportunity for Germany to establish itself as an industry lead market and technology provider”, says the IMechE. The institution adds: “It has now been subsumed into the business lexicon as a catchall covering the automation of manufacturing, machine-to-machine and machine-to-product communication, the industrial internet and technology needed for mass customisation of production.”

But the fourth industrial revolution, however hyped, promises transformational benefits for manufacturers. Golightly adds: “The latest software technology creates an ideal environment to enable companies to optimise each of the key areas of the production process, while interacting dynamically to meet commercial and operational goals. As a result, manufacturers are better able to increase capacity, improve margins, reduce costs and become more energy-efficient.” Many manufacturers in the West are looking at ways of streamlining and improving factory productivity via technology at home, rather than outsourcing manufacture to low-cost countries, where labour rates are rising fast. Industry 4.0 provides the potential means to become more competitive by harnessing the latest digital technologies on the shop floor.

“Car companies have been engaging in mass personalisation for decades. For example, Ferrari has been personalising its vehicles for customers since the late 1940s”

One of the potential benefits of Industry 4.0 is the ability to “mass personalise” products. Car companies have been doing this for decades. For example, Ferrari has been personalising its vehicles for customers since the late 1940s. In the company’s early days, owners enjoyed great freedom of choice in terms of fabrics, colours and finishes of their vehicles. “The need to vary products mildly or radically within a production line is a big driver of Industry 4.0,” says the IMechE.

While luxury vehicle marques have been doing it for years, it is now expected that less expensive and commonplace products will readily feature greater and greater degrees of customisation. A famous example, the institution points out, is French lens company Essilor, which has manufactured more than 320 million spectacle lenses. Many have a high degree of personalisation, achieved by producing a range of standard blanks, and then customising lenses in stages via a network of hundreds of small laboratories.

Keeping an eye on quality

Quality control and metrology is an important area in Industry 4.0. Because many engineered products meet minute tolerances to pass international quality standards, building in more efficient and effective metrology can save a lot of time and money. The traceability of
identical machined parts has particular importance in some sectors like pharmaceuticals, which places a lot more emphasis on this for legal compliance.

Some aerospace companies such as Meggitt, meanwhile, are creating production systems where the traceability of every part is taken for granted. Industry 4.0 means that the data from manufacturing processes can be captured during production, from individual machine tools, and then fed back into the production process to make it more efficient. It also opens up the possibility of tracing a component failure back to the individual process and period in which it occurred.

Touch technology

Is Britain ready?

In Germany, Industry 4.0 has become a reality for both very large engineering companies and their medium-sized and smaller counterparts. However, Britain may be lagging behind both Germany and the US. A survey by business advisory firm BDO earlier in 2016 found that just 8 per cent of British manufacturers surveyed said they had significant understanding of the term Industry 4.0. Fifty-six per cent of manufacturers surveyed said they had “little or no” understanding of the term, yet 44 per cent said Industry 4.0 would have a “large impact” on their business.

If that is the case, it is time for engineers to look into how they might capitalise on it.

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