2017 was the year in which "Industry 4.0" was everywhere. From conferences to exhibitions to articles it was the hot topic across all manufacturing industries and everyone was made to feel like they need to embrace it and invest in it. In which case, 2018 is the year in which everyone will need to implement it.
And Industry 4.0 is indeed a superb concept - switching to a digitial factory, where equipment and people are seamlessley interconnected will boost productivity and efficiency, maximise capacity and increase flexibility. Manufacturers can deliver high volumes of more product variants in shorter leadtimes without increasing resource. "Digital" is the silver bullet that will save manufacturing... right?
All well and good for the world's largest manufacturers with huge budgets and teams of people to dedicate to the transition.
The problem is that an all singing, all dancing, "digital factory" is so far removed from the current state of most UK manufacturing SMEs that it feels completely unobtainable. For a company that hasn't fully invested in the 3rd industrial revolution yet, what sum of money and level of resource will be needed to leapfrog international competition?
Companies like these are already working flat out to make quality products and ship them out of the door. Many are achieving this using proven, though sometimes vintage, machinery: the prospect of ripping it all out to embrace the new digital future is daunting and frankly unrealistic.
As with any revolution, though, change is inevitable. Many SMEs will consider themselves too ‘small’ to implement Industry 4.0, but many of their larger customers – one step along the value chain – may come to expect it in future.
A journey begins with the first step
The answer is to take small steps, and start by embracing the core of Industry 4.0: data. It’s well within the capability of all SMEs to start gathering more data in order to measure and understand how their processes work, and take steps to improve. If you have some data already, gather some more. Link it to other data.
For example, tracking the exact movement of products along a production line can help to identify bottlenecks and determine how serious they are. There are different ways to achieve this. At the top end, large manufacturing organisations gather information using multiple sensors, then crunch this ‘big data’ to find underlying trends. The same can be achieved, on a smaller scale, with far less data.
Start logging data
As an example, mark a component that you are interested in with a unique ID. Then log it at various points in your process. If you can't install fully automated systems, just do it manually. A barcode and a scanner are not expensive items to add to your process.
And any level of manufacturing information – such as the timed progress of a component as it moves along the line – can be ‘logged’ against this unique ID. It might reveal, for instance, that one product is always ‘waiting’ for a certain operation, which could be fixed by reconfiguring the process.
Add 1 sensor. Record 1 element.
One day you may be logging everything, everywhere on multiple sites and using AI to automatically improve processes. But not in 2018. And you will only get there if you start somewhere. So choose something achievable.
The approach of marking individual components in order to capture manufacturing data was originally developed for tracking multiple components for a multi-national manufacturer, but it can be used by the smallest of companies – even those using manual processes or batch production with an Excel spreadsheet.
At the entry level, Industry 4.0 is well within the grasp of even the smallest manufacturer. By measuring the data that you already generate, you can use the output to change and improve your manufacturing operation. Using metrics in this way helps you run your factory using your data, rather than your instinct.
Read more about traceability and data capture.