In the world of manufacturing automation, we stand on the shoulders of giants. From early advances in machinery and software from pioneers such as Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing, through to the ground-breaking achievements of recent decades, in areas such as artificial intelligence and robotic process automation, a firm foundation has been set for the industry to innovate in digital infrastructure and processes.
I was fortunate enough to gain insight into what was to come early in my career. Interning at Intel in the early 2000s, I saw first-hand the fast development in semiconductors, which have been a major component in the staggering pace of change that has occurred.
Now, approaching the end of 2020, we’re at a point in manufacturing history where we can begin to grasp how the advancements of the past two decades will pave the way for a new era of innovation as we progress towards Industry 4.0 – and how today’s manufacturers can get ready for what lies ahead.
Where We’ve Come From
On the surface, modern manufacturing environments share many similar characteristics with the facilities and production lines I saw in my earlier years in the industry. Change, however, has a habit of appearing gradually, and then suddenly. Innovations across various aspects of manufacturing technology and processes have evolved in parallel, and are now converging in such a way that enable today’s manufacturers to operate smarter, more efficient and more resilient business models.
Some of the key innovations of the past two decade include:
- Rapid advances in semiconductor chips and computer hardware
The force of Moore’s Law, which projects that the speed and capability of our computers will increase every two years at ever-reducing costs, is enabling rapid processing abilities and enhanced process automation. As a result, a Distributed Control System (DCS) in a typical plant can now process millions of algorithms in a very short period of time and manage large amounts of data, which has allowed the automation industry to move exponentially towards its maturity.
- Software is ‘eating’ manufacturing, just as it has other industries
Marc Andreessen’s famous edict from 2011 has proved prophetic. The evolution of software-based controls has allowed for the development of intuitive human-machine interfaces. Today’s operators now have an unparalleled level of control of everything from product design through to machine performance analytics.
- Continuous upgrades in communication protocols
The establishment of Open Platform Communication (OPC) for process control and the introduction of wireless technologies in plant settings has enabled real-time information exchange between software applications and process hardware. This has allowed for plant-wide wireless networks to interact with industrial Production Data Acquisition (PDA) systems and industrial phones, giving operators the ability to better control and manage manufacturing environments.
- Machine vision has become a reality
Machine vision allows for imaging-based inspection and analysis in process control. Rapid developments in AI have allowed machines to recognise people and products. This has allowed manufacturing companies to manage their production lines in a more accurate way. Leveraging this power, manufacturers are replacing manual scanning techniques with the ability to interrogate information at high speed and in real-time.
Where We Are Today
These milestones are shaping Industry 4.0. Combined, they offer manufacturers the ability to simulate or emulate product development in real-time virtual environments in order to explore possibilities at a fast pace, while controlling important variables such as energy consumption and product safety.
The capabilities of modern manufacturing provide manufacturing companies with confidence in their investment – it eliminates the unknown factors and creates a platform for rapid experimentation and iteration.
For this transformation to move from the margins to the mainstream required a catalyst. The COVID-19 situation has created a period of circumspection where manufacturers have had to think seriously about the sustainability of their business model. In this global context, digital transformation is no longer a future ambition – it’s central to their ability to make decisions and ensure the continuity of their business in challenging and uncertain circumstances.
The pandemic response has therefore provided companies in the sector with the urgency to gain a greater degree of control over their facilities and operations in order to be ready to adapt in a volatile environment.
Where We’re Going
While we can’t predict when normality will be restored in global affairs, we can face towards the future and seek to outline our expectations for the next era of manufacturing.
Whichever way matters unfold from here, the experience of 2020 has underlined the need for greater diversity and flexibility in factory operations. We’re living in uncertain times and while we can’t predict what’s coming, we can prepare. Whether it’s further pandemic lockdowns or an entirely different black-swan event, companies now know that they need the ability to retool if and when the macro environment requires. In one sense, this requires the flexibility to switch production lines towards essential items. More broadly, it creates a need to be able to connect factories across geographical boundaries, using tools such as augmented reality, in order to remove physical limitations between plants and experts and maintain continuity through remote maintenance and training.
Amid the stress the past year has placed on production environments, companies are recognising the urgent need for a calibration on the health of their facility. In recent months, we’ve worked with manufacturers to conduct health checks on plant equipment and have helped identify potentially millions of dollars’ worth of machinery that was going obsolete. The companies are now focused on bringing those sites up to a higher level of excellence, providing the resilience they need going forward.
The global situation has also underlined the need for manufacturers to achieve greater efficiency in plant design and planning. To this end, enterprise resource planning (ERP) has been elevated to a higher level of priority. Manufacturers typically have huge amounts of latent plant data, much of which has historically not been leveraged. To compete in the new era, manufacturers are making investments to capture and automate that data to fuel rapid and continuous processes and collaboration across stakeholders.
The Dawn of Industry 4.0
It’s easy to overlook the magnitude of the advances that have taken place over the past decades. Small, iterative advances across the manufacturing spectrum may not seem significant in isolation, but compound to create massive changes across the entire value chain.
While we anticipated these advances would manifest over time, we could not have conceived of a catalyst such as COVID-19, which has brought the essential capabilities of a modern manufacturing facility to the forefront and elevated digital transformation as an industry priority.
The companies that have been able to recognise this fundamental shift, and adapt accordingly, are now better prepared to adapt and flourish in the new digital era. Building upon decades of progress, today’s manufacturers have access to the tools they need to get ready for what’s yet to come.
To find out more about Industry 4.0 and the digital journey that lies before us, visit the Management Perspectives content hub, where you’ll find a wealth of relevant podcasts, blogs, webinars and much more.