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Smart Factory: Illusion or Necessity?

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At the time of writing, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused unprecedented disruption across the manufacturing world. For many business leaders, however, this hasn’t changed the push and drive towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, as manufacturers scramble to find new ways of surviving in a changing world.

While the term Industry 4.0 is often used to convey a realm of possibilities, it comes with a number of challenges. The automation of information and data exchange in manufacturing technologies, and the creation of the ‘smart factory’ is still a long way away from being realised for most businesses. In other words, it is still very much an illusion. Even though digital technology is changing the face of the industrial and manufacturing world, the march towards Industry 4.0 is happening comparatively slowly. Advancements such as the integration of physical objects and software are patchy across sectors, and while some pioneers – such as Amazon – exist, for the majority of the rest of the sector, we are not there yet.

Although there are no simple answers as to why progress has been slow, there are three main obstacles that the industry is facing against a full realisation of Industry 4.0: 

 

1. Connectivity

The goal of connectivity should be to do with data collection and data management. A truly connected enterprise would be able to effectively manage the data that comes out of an organisation and the data that goes in. Many PLCs are currently struggling with this reality, particularly because the big data emanating from Industry 4.0 comes from so many different and diverse sources. Most of the data is either unused or used only for very specific, tactical purposes.

Inadequate interoperability across incompatible technologies, systems and data types contributes to this problem of data not being leveraged strategically. Without integration of machine and sensor data, businesses won’t be able to handle topics such as condition monitoring, predictive maintenance or traceability – which are key components of the smart factory. To overcome this, companies need cutting-edge platforms that can fully leverage the value of manufacturing big data using machine learning, artificial intelligence and predictive analytics.

 

2. Implementation

Far too many conventional IT systems struggle to store, manipulate and govern the diverse data that Industry 4.0 demands. This not only leads to lost productivity, but additional technology headaches as more people are required on the shop floor and unable to fulfil their duties from remote settings.

This is frustrating for many reasons: the integration of Industry 4.0 should be somewhat smoother than the reality to date, because the advances in technology over the past two decades demand it. But enabling new equipment, and being able to register and link with the software required for a seamless integration, is still proving elusive to many. There are also barriers due to a lack of standardisation and a lack of knowledge or understanding of the technology available.

Open-source software solutions may be the best solution to this issue in the short and medium term, though in the long term, businesses will find that structural changes are needed from the top and bottom across the organisation.

 

3. Automation and IT Hierarchy

Industry 4.0 requires automation solutions to be highly cognitive. But when it comes to larger projects such as automation, organisations often follow a specific route or turn to an existing supplier, with the result that they can get “locked in” in a way that can limit their access or mindset to alternative solutions in the Industry 4.0 environment. There is also a need for decision-making to be done faster than ever. While edge computing could be a viable solution, this technology is still in its infancy for many manufacturing companies.

There are no easy solutions, but a better understanding between IT and OT (operational technology) must be prioritised if machines are going to ‘talk’ to each other effectively. 

 

Illusion or necessity?

While the buzzword of Industry 4.0 is still very much at large, many manufacturing businesses still have a lot of work to do before they can fully realise their ambitions. And, as industries continue to evolve at rapid pace, the need to turn the illusion of fully smart and automated factories, will shift to a necessity. This necessity is ultimately what will take the smart factory out of the illusion, and into reality.

If you want to know more about how to bring digitalisation to life for your organisation, visit the Rockwell Automation EMEA Connected Enterprise Customer Center.


Dr. Myriam Jahn
Dr. Myriam Jahn
CEO von Q-loud und Vorstandsmitglied der QSC AG
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