Is Your Industrial Metal-Cutting Company Ready for the Next Industrial Revolution?

September 15, 2015 / , , , , , , , , ,

A brief look around at any public establishment quickly reveals just how much connectivity has changed the world. Whether checking an email on the train, texting a family member outside a restaurant, or posting photos on social media during a concert, almost every adult—and teen—rely on some type of connected device to function. It has, at this point, become a social norm in first-world culture.

However, could the same be said when looking around your shop floor? In some cases, the answer would be yes. Some industry leaders grabbed onto connectivity years ago, making the strategic decision to connect their production equipment to the Internet and/or back office functions to streamline processes or to gain access to valuable data.

Others haven’t quite caught on. As one article from Forbes reported, some industry leaders are saying that as little as 10 percent of industrial operations are currently using the connected enterprise. That number, which may or may not be accurate, seems surprisingly low when publications like the Harvard Business Review are saying that the use of smart, connected products “is perhaps the most substantial change in the manufacturing firm since the Second Industrial Revolution.”

In fact, thanks to advancements in machine-to-machine (M2M) and communications technology, many believe the manufacturing industry is on the brink of the “fourth industrial revolution,” also known as Industry 4.0. This concept has been widely discussed and promoted in Europe, especially by German manufacturers Siemens and Bosch, but the term is starting to gain a little traction in the U.S as well.

What is Industry 4.0?

Because this is a newer term, the definitions for what comprises Industry 4.0 vary greatly. An article from ZDNet outlines the four major shifts in industrial manufacturing as follows:

In general, many use Industry 4.0 as a collective term that refers to all of the technologies that will help foster the next-generation “smart factory”—a place where machines communicate with each other and their users in real-time, and factory processes become visible and controllable in virtual space. This typically includes technological concepts like embedded systems, automation and robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Internet of Services (IoS).

According a report from Deloitte, there are four characteristics that define Industry 4.0:

  1. Vertical networking of smart production systems
  2. Horizontal integration via a new generation of global value chain networks
  3. Cross-disciplinary “through-engineering” across the entire value chain
  4. Acceleration through exponential technologies

For a great primer on Industry 4.0, including its distinction from terms like “Industrial Internet,” read this article from Industry Week.

How Can You Prepare?

Regardless of how you define or categorize the evolution of manufacturing, the point is that most experts agree that connectivity has the power to change manufacturing as we know it. Research also shows that many manufacturers are not prepared or equipped to be part of this next industrial revolution. A 2014 Smart Manufacturing Technologies Survey, for example, found that 40 percent of the survey participants have no visibility into the real-time status of their company’s manufacturing process. Adrian Jennings, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of software provider Ubisense, which conducted the survey, says this reveals a major blind spot among today’s manufacturers.

“The manufacturing world is talking about Industry 4.0, but this survey confirmed that most manufacturers are far from embracing cyber-physical systems which define the next Industrial Revolution,” Jennings said.

How can your shop transition to what is likely the future of manufacturing? A contributed article appearing provides some helpful tips and provides the value story for moving your operation from Industry 3.0 to Industry 4.0. Specifically, the article suggests the following:

“Start small and start local — trying to create large scale cyber-physical systems as a single effort presents too many challenges to be successful. Pick a problem or pain point and tackle it to prove that these solutions work and provide value. As benefits surface, roll this out to other processes keeping the ultimate goal of end-to-end visibility in mind. Be sure to invest in the right infrastructure at the outset and create islands of cyber-physical systems throughout the operation.”

Another article from Modern Machine Shop simplifies it further:

And if you think this transition isn’t already happening in the metal-cutting world, think again. According to a white paper from the LENOX Institute of Technology, one metal service center has developed an internal software system to automatically track the number of square inches processed by each band saw and each blade. At any point, the operations manager can go to a computer screen, click on a saw, and see how many square inches that saw is currently processing and has processed in the past. This has allowed the service center to easily track trends and quickly detect problem areas.

In what ways has your metal-cutting organization prepared for this next phase of industrial manufacturing? Are you ready to usher in “smarter,” more connected operational strategies?