Industry 4.0 – A Realistic Pathway to the Smart Factory

Industry 4.0 is the undeniable buzzword in manufacturing at the moment. After all, it is easy to understand the potential benefits and get excited by the prospect of the smart factory. Making your plant part of the fourth industrial revolution, however, is much easier said than done.

It is such a massive topic, in fact, that it’s difficult to know where to start. The whole concept is both overwhelming and daunting.

In addition, while the theory of Industry 4.0 is great, you’re not involved in theory. Instead, you’re in the real-world of maximising OEE, tight manufacturing deadlines, increasingly high customer expectations, creating supply chain efficiencies, reducing costs, complying with regulations… the list goes on.

Where, then, do you start with Industry 4.0?

The Problem with the Smart Factory

Most articles about Industry 4.0 and the smart factory add a concise definition of what the author thinks it is. Here is the reality, though – nobody really knows what the smart factory looks like.

Of course, there are technologies and concepts that are a part of Industry 4.0 that we can talk about. In brief, this includes connecting and integrating all aspects of the manufacturing process including machines, IT, systems, platforms, human operators, business processes, the supply chain, and the wider enterprise.

Crucially, it’s not just about connecting these elements but also automating decision-making across the whole company and manufacturing process.

So, the smart factory is more about becoming autonomous than it is about more traditional automation. It also involves technology that enables machines, systems, and processes to learn, change, and self-optimise.

Back to the point above, though, i.e. nobody really knows what the smart factory looks like. This is because technology is advancing incredibly rapidly. In fact, in five or 10 years’ time, there will be technology available to make your factory smarter that has not yet been conceived.

In other words, the smart factory is not an end result. Instead, it’s an evolution with no conceivable end date.

Also, there is no fixed Industry 4.0 pathway. The pathway is, instead, completely flexible and can – and should – be adapted to the needs of your business.

The Realistic Industry 4.0 Pathway

Understanding there is no fixed pathway and that developing the smart factory is an ongoing evolutionary process actually makes starting the journey much easier. In fact, the answer is quite simple: you should have big goals for your plants, but you should start small.

This could involve starting on a single production line, or even a single asset, and maximising its performance. This could mean automating batch control, for example, or improving the way you generate, collect, centrally store, present, analyse, and then use data to make real-world decisions.

By starting small like this, it’s easy to manage, there are fewer risks, and it’s cost-effective while still letting you test and prove concepts. You’ll also get to see how the benefits of Industry 4.0 will impact your operations and facilities, plus you’ll get to see the challenges too. These include:

  • The impact on operational processes
  • Governance issues
  • Compliance
  • The impact on people including the reallocation of resources
  • Cybersecurity

When you start small, you can then gradually scale to other lines, the whole factory, multiple factories, and into the supply chain and wider business processes.

By doing so, you won’t create a smart factory within a predefined period of time, but you will be part of the fourth industrial revolution. Your factory will also become smarter and your overall business will improve.

With no clear reason to delay, the time to start on your Industry 4.0 and smart factory journey is now. Visit our Factory Automation pages for more information.

Darragh McMorrow

Darragh McMorrow, SL Controls’ Commercial Director, has 15 years of engineering services and contract solutions experience acquiring an in-depth knowledge of manufacturing systems integration services. He has direct responsibility for developing long-term partnerships with companies in the medical devices, pharmaceutical, and FMCG sectors as well as for implementing commercial strategies to continue growing the business nationally and internationally.

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