Industry 4.0 began to enter the manufacturing lexicon around 10 years ago. Dubbed the fourth manufacturing revolution by its German architects—the industrial revolution, the invention of mass production and the development of information technology are the first three—Industry 4.0 can be defined in its simplest terms as the use of “information and communication technologies to digitize processes, resulting in better quality, lower costs and more efficiency,” wrote Karen Laird in a special report published by PlasticsToday. “At the basis of this industrial digitization are so-called cyber-physical systems, which integrate the physical and virtual worlds,” explained Laird. “In a production environment, this means integrating operating technology with information technology, something that is accomplished by using embedded systems to monitor and control physical processes. Connecting all these sensor systems in networks to computing systems results in the emergence of what today is called the Internet of Things (IoT), in which enormous amounts of data are collected, analyzed and communicated. Intelligence is no longer centralized in one place, but is distributed across the entire system, to be accessed by machines, devices and users,” writes Laird in the report, which is available as a free download on the PlasticsToday site.
Early on, there was a lot of hype around the concept—Industry 4.0 quickly became a buzzword throughout the K show. Today, and especially in North America, one is likely to encounter the more pragmatic terms “smart factory” and “smart manufacturing,” but make no mistake: The tools—sensors, robotics, digitalization, industrial IoT (IIoT) and deep data analysis—as well as the objectives—increased productivity, a competitive advantage vis-à-vis low-wage countries—are largely synonymous. Call it what you want—its impact on first-world manufacturing is inescapable.
A joint study by the Manufacturer’s Alliance for Productivity and Innovation and Deloitte published in September 2019 found that more than 85% of industrial manufacturers believe that smart factory initiatives will be the main driver of manufacturing competitiveness in the next five years. The BMW plant in Regensburg, Germany, shows why.
Dubbed a “factory of the future” by the World Economic Forum, the BMW plant produced approximately 320,000 vehicles in 2018. By introducing Industry 4.0–inspired technologies—sensors, robotics, autonomous transport systems, data collection and IIoT—the amount of time needed to deploy new applications was cut by 80% and quality issues were reduced by 5%, according to a report filed by CNN on Jan. 23, 2020.
"A smart factory is characterized by a smart way of using new technologies, [and] new ideas to get innovations on a next level," Frank Bachmann, BMW Regensburg Plant Manager, told CNN reporters Jenny Marc and Nell Lewis. “There are more than 3,000 connected machines, robots and autonomous transport systems at the plant. A custom-made Internet of Things platform links these tools with materials and parts, which are given laser-printed labels at the outset—allowing information to be analyzed and tracked every step of the way,” they write. That means any problems in the supply line can be alerted. For instance, if the system detects strange noises, mechanics are notified, and the problem can be fixed immediately.
Enter artificial intelligence
It’s a testament to today's dizzying pace of technological change that artificial intelligence (AI), as such, is barely mentioned in the early days—and by this I mean less than 10 years ago—of Industry 4.0. Now, AI is a key element of the smart factory. Anna-Katrina Shedletsky, CEO and founder of Instrumental, a company that uses cloud-based data aggregation to perform failure analysis, will explain how to leverage AI to diagnose defects and increase yields at the forthcoming co-located PLASTEC West and Medical Design & Manufacturing (MD&M) West event. A mechanical engineer who worked for six years at Apple, Shedletsky is one of several speakers doing a deep dive into the factory of the future at the Smart Manufacturing Innovation Summit during the trade show and conference in Anaheim, CA, on Feb. 11 to 13, 2020.
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