i4.0 today





By Michael Ford, European Marketing Director, Aegis Software

Why does it always seem that we are trying to play catch-up? For once, can there be a substance to the vision of digitalisation of manufacturing that makes sense, both from a business and a technical viewpoint? Without a defined goal or endpoint in sight, the Industry 4.0 journey is frustrating for many people.  Technology-wise, with just the ingredients present and visible in the market today, plus just a little creative evolution, what would we expect to see if looking from the future at the roadmap of the Industry 4.0 journey?

Where Will Industry 4.0 Manufacturing Take Place In The Future?

We start at the end-goal, just a few years in the future, say around 2025 – 2030, depending on industry segment. Electronics and software are now dominant, a part of pretty much any device that is manufactured, even basic traditionally mechanical devices. Integration of electronics and mechanics, together with built-in IoT communication in many cases is the differentiator of most products sold in the market that have gone through process assembly. The political drivers behind Industry 4.0, which kicked off many years ago, have ensured the survival of small and medium manufacturing companies in Europe and beyond. Moving manufacturing geographically to follow the lower cost of labor has become obsolete as investment in automation has taken place. More significant than labor cost has been the impact of the cost of the energy for transportation, logistics, as well as the depreciation that occurs during global transportation.

Other influential factors included environmental concerns, increasing risk of instability in various regions across the globe, as well as revised political pressure and financial encouragement to support local manufacturing.

Factories local to their market now thrive across the whole globe, with distribution costs of finished products slashed as a result. The majority of the factories however belong to multi-national EMS companies, whose message to their customers is to make “anything in any quantity anywhere in the world, at any time”. Each factory is therefore continuously manufacturing a very high mix of products, and for each, a high volatility in demand. Industry 4.0 has had a very strong influence in the balancing out of global demand for global products, made globally by local factories. Factories are effectively expected to provide a near “make to order” service, whilst retaining productivity of high-volume mass-production. Keeping the factory comfortable, at or near capacity, and productive, is a key business differentiator.

 How Is This “Impossible Mission” Being Achieved?

Cost savings in the distribution chain created a significant financial opportunity to be creative in the design for a high performance, flexible manufacturing business case. Investment in both Industry 3.0 process automation technology, such as advanced robotics and other automated processes, as well as Industry 4.0 digitalised control, with continuous optimization over all key aspects of the factory operation. Robot processes now support highly flexible operation requirements, seeming to take little time, if any, to adapt from one task to another. Advanced optimization algorithms built into their controllers simply create the necessary series of operations based on the digital models of both the product and the physical work-space. Looking across the factory floor, products seem to flow randomly between production stations, though in fact, they are being optimally sequenced by a highly sophisticated real-time Industry 4.0 factory planning tool.

It is not only the machines that have been enhanced. Production operators also have gone through a revolution. Having digitalisation of the products and processes means that instructions for operators are now fed to them also electronically and in real-time. Operators that were once dedicated to a specific task are able to move freely from one product to another, seamlessly, without the need for specialist training or experience. In fact, the dedication of operators to repetitive tasks has become all but obsolete, as they are assigned on demand to perform a wide variety of production, logistics, and even quality control and maintenance tasks as required by the factory plan. The life of an operator became much more interesting, with greater responsibility and opportunity.

Each operator has the opportunity to interact with the Industry 4.0 solutions through augmented reality, delivered by electronic glasses and augmented reality headsets, allowing them to work hands-free.

The number of operators in a typical factory actually increased as Industry 4.0 took hold, and the rate of capacity expansion of local factories peaked.

 How Did The Industry 4.0 Supply Chain Evolve?

The initial stage of reducing costs related to the distribution of finished goods put a great deal of pressure on the supply chain, which had been dwindling for decades as high volume manufacturing locations moved into areas of lower labor costs. As Industry 4.0 took hold, the supply-chain operation split into two distinct areas. For common materials, those that could be applied to a wide variety of different products, a Lean Just In Time (JIT) version of the traditional supply chain re-evolved. Short-term stocks of materials were held on site at factories, which turned over typically in a week. Hubs of common materials were located regionally to service the several factories near them, so as to make maximum cost effectiveness, aggregating the use of individual material on-demand orders into high volumes with relatively low volatility. The turns of common raw materials is now incredible compared to the past, taking  just a couple of weeks from raw material creation to the use of that material as a component in an assembled product in use by an end customer.

The unique material area of the supply-chain follows a similar principle, but with the vast number of unique materials and the relatively low-volume consumption of each, an alternate technology stepped in to reduce the need for local “just in case” stock-holding. Additive manufacturing developed incredibly fast in the early years of Industry 4.0, leading to complex shapes being created using multiple complex materials. Additive manufacturing “farms” of additive processes are located in each factory, where digital mechanical product models are used to create physical parts “just in time” for use in production.

How Did ERP Survive As Part Of The Industry 4.0 Revolution?

Though almost all materials are available locally “on demand”, there is still the process of product demand management to be done. Looking ahead to predict and influence customer demand is still as much a science today as it was pre-Industry 4.0, and is much more complex as technologies and variations of products increase.

The skills of humans aided by ERP logic to predict future product demand evolved to become driven by Artificial Intelligence (AI), which now analyses trends using information about customers, their consumption and spending habits, and in fact every aspect of their social wants and needs.

Today’s AI driven ERP technology, predicts demand at macro, global and regional levels, providing an aggregated expectation for materials and capacity going forward.

Industry 4.0 has required that ERP evolve in this way, in the same way as it has required what was once traditional MES to evolve into the Industry 4.0 live factory management intelligence. These continue to co-exist and are complementary, separated mainly by the time-scale which they support.

 How Did The Industry 4.0 Underlying Technology Evolution All Start?

Once the business model advantages of Industry 4.0 became clear, significant effort was made to create the underlying technologies on which our Industry 4.0 factories are now based. Intelligence, whether artificial, programmed, or human, has always needed information with which to work, to make the right decisions. As the decision-making process needed to become faster, and based on a wider range of variables, so automation of decision-making evolved, bringing with it the need for digital real-time visibility of the whole factory operation. It was clear that data about products, different types of processes, as well as transactional operations performed by people, needed to be digitalised. Considering the vast array of differing assembly manufacturing technologies and the plethora of different vendors of equipment, it was clear that for any Industry 4.0 digitalisation to succeed, there had to be the creation of, and adherence to, digital information standards. A leading example of this appeared early on in the history of Industry 4.0, coming out of the IPC organisation focused mainly on the electronics industry. The true digitalisation of product data was defined and standardised by IPC-2581. Rather than simply representing human-readable data sent in digital form, such as emailing a file containing a scan of a diagram, IPC-2581 presented a complete digital product model description which could be utilised by computer systems in the various engineering systems within manufacturing without human data manipulation. Advanced engineering systems at both a site level and a process level were able to take IPC-2581 data to create optimised production flows across multiple machine configurations.

Having access to production interpretation of the digital product model, the Industry 4.0 real-time planning system was able to understand the metrics of making each product at any point throughout the factory. Another critical standard contributing to the enablement of Industry 4.0 was the IPC CFX (Connected Factory Exchange). Real-time event and status data was transmitted using CFX omni-directionally between all machines and processes. Every process could start to see, for example, what was coming in terms of work allocation and material delivery  details, so that they could self-optimize the preparation process. CFX also provided the opportunity for multiple closed-loop feedback paths such that processes could themselves provide automated active quality management. CFX data extends out from the machine and process level to the factory level, where automated Industry 4.0 Lean logistics systems could send and recover materials from machine processes just in time, automating all logistics, warehouse operations etc. The Industry 4.0 real-time planning tool could see everything using CFX, events, materials, production progress and performance. Based on all of this live data, plus changes in customer demand, the digitalized Industry 4.o automated factory management as we know it today in assembly manufacturing, was born.

The history of the future of Industry 4.0 is more than a vision. Tools that start the journey such as those from the IPC  and the many companies that support them, are already shaping this future.

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