Industry 4.0? What's The Big Deal?

- Nov 01, 2018 -

I travel around North America frequently to introduce the current state -- and likely short-term trajectory -- of advanced manufacturing technologies to educators and policy makers. These are the people that are going to design, instruct, and financially support the next generation skilled professionals that will be the 'makers' of the future.

A lot of these folks aren't immersed or have deep personal experience with manufacturing operations, so they rely on articles written in the general press for information -- they aren't reading the technical trade publications focussed on manufacturing or software topics. This is the clue that they don't want all the tiny details; they just want to know why its important, in the shortest amount of time, so they can be convinced to fund, teach, or design an educational manufacturing program for their community.

In general, two main questions come up during our discussions. The first concerns the terminology of the Internet of Things (IoT), the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industry 4.0 and how they are related. Are they different? Are they the same? I took a stab at explaining how I view these topics last year here IoT vs Industry 4.0

The second question is this:

What's the benefit of Industry 4.0?

This is actually a really insightful question that can trip up those caught up in the details of the technologies. I know it did for me and it took a while for me to come up with my particular viewpoint. The trouble is that often a dozen 'benefits' are rattled off in no particular order that just really don't sound like a benefits to the layperson (and really aren't when you think about it). Its more like the geek's guide to cool technologies.

To me, the best short, single answer requires you to know from which perspective the question is being asked:

From the Consumer Perspective: The biggest benefit is that you will be able to order single piece items (in German I4.0 speak: "Lot Size One") configured to your needs, without additional costs since automated machinery will be producing it. This is a clear benefit and it doesn't take much imagination to visualize how receiving a completely personalized product is better than a mass designed and produced one.

From the Manufacturers Perspective: The answer is twofold:

First the opportunity to grab market share from the consumers demands above, of course.

Second, to finally have the technology to make useful information out of the large amounts of available data to provide the long sought after (but strangely elusive) goal of establishing an effective Predictive Maintenance program. This is the practice of eliminating costs by reducing both machine downtime (caused by equipment failure) and the unnecessary preventative maintenance that is currently used to, well, prevent that from happening.

Industry 4.0 includes the concepts of machine to machine (M2M) communication and equipment that has the 'smarts' to determine its own machine health to make predicative maintenance a reality. These savings go directly to the bottom line, so you can bet they will be implemented fast -- and is also a clear and obvious benefit (and not simply a feature).

So in my mind, those are the answers in the proverbial nutshell. It allows the layperson to understand the importance of the Industry 4.0 and appreciate what it could means for the future of manufacturing, especially in the US.@

Mike Nager