We all noticed the Buzz: Industrial production is changing dramatically. The driving force is the so-called Industry 4.0, a fancy name for the 4th industrial revolution. A combination of advances in data science and the proliferation of sensors, generating an increasing amount of data, is creating a gigantic amount of opportunities. The interesting part of it all is: we know it has started, but right now the full impact of this revolution is still unknown.
Testimonies of those companies that already engaged in their first Industry 4.0 experiments tell us that the change is radical. The impact reaches the core of the organisation: their business model. Monitoring, using data and performing profound analysis is changing the production process, but also the way the company interacts with their suppliers and customers: the process is shaking up entire value chains. To those that haven't taken their first explorative steps into this new way of working the message is clear: either start implementing it right now, or prepare for a future where it is certain that you'll be overrun from all sides.
Our interactions with the industrial production sector to date has revealed 2 trends: 'pimping' existing production sites and machine builders making their products smart.
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The first application relates to larger, established production sites where multiple machines make up a continuous production line. In these environments multiple aspects need to be balanced carefully: maximal availability, safety for the workers, energy efficiency, product quality, yields and maintenance costs.Combining all those aspects is a daunting task, often with responsibilities in different departments within the organisation. When equipping the production units with sensors, using the data sources already available, structuring them all and subjecting them to the right analysis, enormous opportunities arise. All aspects mentioned above can be parametrised, and the algorithms designed to perform the data analysis provide the plant owner a tool to start optimising these potentially contradictory goals to a maximum. Moreover, as all data points are stored in a central (cloud) environment, machine learning algorithms start detecting trends and discriminating normal from undesired operations. As such the overall system becomes increasingly predictive, the prerequisite for maximal efficiency in operations.
The second group of Industry 4.0 adopters are the classical machine or instrument builders. For them this approach opens up a new way of differentiating from low-cost competitors. Up to recently the mere quality of a product was sufficient as a selling argument. The increased globalisation together with shrinking production costs however lead to the emergence of extremely low cost players that threaten the classical masters of this industry. In order not to be dragged down in the downward spiral of pure competition, the only remaining option is creating a new playing field. As an alternative to an intelligent combination of steel, copper and plastic a machine builder can start offering 'capacity' or 'reliability'. This is done by making the machines 'smart' from their birth on. All units produced are equipped with a relevant set of sensors, a data acquisition and communication unit. All operational and health related data collected on the machines installed all over the world is sent to a central (cloud) location. Various algorithms screen through the data and derived quantities. Looking at evolutions in the behaviour of individual machines as well as through comparing multiple (almost) identical units, powerful predictions can be made. Combining this with the profound knowledge of the ins and outs of the machine present within the organisation, the machine builder can send out a maintenance crew well ahead of time. The experts will have the required spare parts and tools to conduct the operation in the shortest possible time. As a result the end client will benefit from maximal availability and will start to forget that in some distant past her or his production scheme was messed up by a surprise breakdown.
Whether you find yourself in the first or the second category, the message is the same:
- Don't delay taking your first steps into Industry 4.0. Your competitors are taking their first steps and are strengthening their position with every data point and with each additional run of the self-learning algorithm. Day after day.
- Do not wait for perfection. As the tech companies conquering today's industrial indexes show, it is essential to follow a lean approach. Start small, learn, improve and expand from there. Start with a minimal viable product and expand from there. From the moment the first results get visible, more and more colleagues will get convinced of the potential, will start coming up with new ideas and the snowball will start rolling as well within your organisation.