Is your business prepared for Industry 4.0?

Why employees and technology need to work together to make the fourth industry revolution a success.
29 November 2018

An operator points on a smart touchable screen to control an articulated industrial robot. Source: AFP

Many businesses are facing up to the fact that the digital transformation is much more than just another buzzword. Even traditional industries that you wouldn’t associate with technology are beginning to evolve as the fourth industrial revolution gathers pace.

The arrival of steam and water power ushered in the first industrial revolution. These power sources were able to drive machinery inside factories and reduce the need for manual effort to increase efficiencies and do more with less.

Electricity created a second revolution which transformed factories forever and brought the concept of mass production to life by enabling the shipment of products all over the world. More recently computing power and later the internet would highlight the art of the possible and begin automating processes.

What is industry 4.0?

Here in the present, industry 4.0 is a revolution where a wide range of new technologies promise to accelerate the pace of transformational change. A combination of always connected sensors, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, cloud storage, and blockchain technology will help make sense of a deluge of data and analytics.

With 5G on the horizon, we can expect an influx of sensors that connect machines, tools and almost anything to the internet. The ability to send live production data directly to cloud-based solutions is just the beginning. It will also pave the way to real-time reporting and user-friendly dashboards.

Supply chains are a great example of how adding sensors to assets and vehicles could revolutionize the manufacturing industry. Emerging blockchain solutions such as Ambrosus take it a step further by creating a secure and frictionless dialogue between sensors, distributed ledgers, and databases.

The digitization of manufacturing processes will ensure that everything is measured and logged which will create powerful analytics that has not been possible until now. Increasing the visibility of supply chains and quality assurance will deliver greater efficiencies and potentially save companies millions.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is bringing the concept of industry 4.0 to life. It is hoped that AI algorithms will soon be able to crunch vast amounts of complex data to reveal anomalies and autocorrect any errors in real-time.

Take a reality check

However, before we get too carried away at the endless possibilities, we still have a long road ahead before we truly see the benefits. There is an inconvenient truth that most manufacturing is run by small businesses that sadly do not have the time or budget to invest in new infrastructure, software solutions and staff for digital-transformation initiatives to be a viable option for them.

Small businesses do not have the luxury of living in an idealistic utopia of modern manufacturing. For these reasons alone, it will probably be several years before IIoT that stretches beyond the big names in manufacturing. Although there is a counter-argument, that younger startups could arrive and force the issue by attempting to disrupt the old way of doing things.

We could also see the transformation of business models too that create new opportunities around emerging digitized manufacturing processes. But, where do businesses begin to disrupt and avoid being disrupted by another company?

Lessons learned and why you need to put people first

Don’t rush in and get carried away by the allure of shiny new technology. Your digital transformation journey towards industry 4.0 should begin by assessing where you are right now. Only by understanding all of your technology, infrastructure, processes, and connectivity can you start to understand the weaknesses and areas for improvement.

As this is our fourth industrial revolution, it is also crucial that we look back and learn from the mistakes of previous generations. The first time around Luddite workers destroyed the machinery that was threatening their livelihood. Implementing meaningful change to your business is about people, not just technology.

Inviting technologists that don’t understand the complex world of manufacturing is dangerous. There is an increasing argument that the technology problem shouldn’t be the biggest problem to solve. Every manufacturing company will be unique in its offering and size.

A deep understanding of every process and customer is crucial to how to move forward. Listening to your staff and involving them at every stage to play a significant part in the transformation should not be underestimated. Ensuring that your staff enjoy the ride with you is more important than any new technology-based solution.

For a digital transformation strategy of any kind to be a success, it must consist of humans and machines working together. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but together they can accomplish almost anything.

As businesses increasingly invest resources into concepts such as smart factories, we should see industry 4.0 as an opportunity rather than a challenge. Companies that succeed will not be the ones that replace their staff with technology, but those that empower their employees through education and nurture their talent to embed a culture that embraces innovation.