The Myths and Misconceptions surrounding Industry 4.0

For anyone working in a manufacturing environment, Industry 4.0 will be a familiar concept. For some, the move to smarter manufacturing is already well underway, but others are yet to embrace this newer, more connected way of working.

Research published in the Annual Manufacturing Report suggests that an overwhelming majority of UK manufacturers can see the benefit of connected factories. However, in practice, a majority remain reluctant to invest in Industry 4.0 technologies, despite evidence that doing so will significantly improve profitability and productivity.

Paul Bowden, Sales Director at Bosch Rexroth UK and trained engineer, shares his insight into some of the common myths and misconceptions that are barriers to the implementation of Industry 4.0.

There’s lots of focus on the future, but we need to focus on the present

The term ‘factory of the future’ has become synonymous with Industry 4.0. Yet, to an extent, it is misleading – with many assuming that the focus is not on the here and now, but on technologies of the future. However, in a world where consumers demand ever more customised products, faster lead-times and more competitive pricing, those not embracing technology will soon be struggling to keep up.

The fact that it has become a bit of a buzzword – a hot topic that’s rife for discussion in the trade and industry press – almost overcomplicates things to the point of inaction. The factory of the future isn’t a future-gazing concept which focusses on ten years’ time, it is about the changes that industry needs to embrace – now, next and beyond – to offer customers what they’ve come to expect and to make manufacturing businesses more competitive and more agile.

Media hype aside, the situation right now in the UK is that smart manufacturing, connected equipment, data-driven facilities management and a connected supply chain are all here to stay.

Machinery will need to be replaced, which is a massive investment and will cause downtime we can’t afford

While I’m reluctant to tackle anything that might look or feel like politics, it is impossible to look at the reasons why there is a reluctance to invest in technology without using the B word. The UK manufacturing industry, as with the wider UK economy, is living in the Brexit shadow, a little unsure about what’s around the corner. Of course, this uncertainty inevitably has a knock-on effect, with businesses unsure about the impact on their supply chains and future export opportunities. With businesses focussed on day-to-day challenges, the intent to make a business case for investment often takes a back seat.

However, while economic uncertainty must take at least some of the blame, there’s also a perception out there that harnessing the benefits of Industry 4.0 will require a huge upfront investment in shiny new production lines and autonomous, robotic machinery. While this vision of an Industry 4.0 connected factory sits at one end of the scale, the other end is a far slower and more steady approach. Businesses can harness the benefits of Industry 4.0 by retrofitting sensors to their current equipment – something which can be done regardless of its age.

With the ultimate goal being to increase transparency, productivity and efficiency, the addition of sensors to existing equipment can provide a controlled and financially accessible first taste of a connected environment. Having access to real-time data not only enables production quality checks at the point of manufacture and economical batch size reduction, but also facilitates accurate machine and system health checks and continuous monitoring – process efficiencies which can offer a fast ROI and help make a strong business case for ongoing digitisation.

The notion that a plant would need to require a complete and costly shutdown to become connected is also a common one. In fact, while the ROI should be properly assessed with a knowledgeable partner, the implementation of sensors can significantly reduce unplanned downtime. With instant access to sensor data, repairs and maintenance can be predicted and scheduled in to natural production breaks, to prevent costly plant downtime, or worse, complete system failure.

Storing data in the cloud will open me up to IT and data security risks

The threat of cyber attacks and data breaches strike fear into the heart of any business owner – especially those dealing with sensitive customer data. While the data harnessed by a connected factory brings with it a whole host of benefits, many manufacturers will worry that the collection and storage of data and the use of IoT will open them up to an increased risk.

While IT security is not something that should be overlooked and there is an onus on individual facilities to ensure that firewalls are in place, security patches and encryption are implemented and up to date and that IT infrastructure is fit for purpose, manufacturers should also look to their technology provider for assurances. In fact, in March 2018, the UK government put in place a series of measures designed to put pressure on manufacturers of connected devices to build in tough security measures that last the entire lifetime of the product. Working with a reputable supplier can make a big difference when it comes to securing your data.

Investing in Industry 4.0 will put jobs at risk

The UK manufacturing industry directly employs 2.6 million people. With increasing concern about the ageing workforce and challenges recruiting younger workers, there is a focus on bringing young blood and new skills into the industry. With this at the forefront of many business leaders’ minds, digitisation can seem a further threat to the existing workforce.

However, the key to the successful implementation of Industry 4.0 lies in the experience and expertise of the people on the shop floor and beyond. Data is only as good as the people who interpret it – and having the experience to discern the useful data from the useless is absolutely key to harnessing the benefits of a connected factory. Equally, connected technology can be used to enhance manual processes – supporting workers by intelligently guiding them through assembly processes and reducing the likelihood of human error. While artificial intelligence lies at the heart of a connected factory, it is human intelligence that offers the brains behind successful implementation.