5 Critical Features for Industry 4.0 Technology
Brian Hoey - January 26, 2021
At last check, nearly 75% percent of companies said that one of their top priorities for Industry 4.0 was protecting their organization from disruption. As we head into 2021, that probably rings true for almost everyone across the entire supply chain and industry sector. After a year of constant pressure to adapt to new market forces and constraints, pivot to new business models and processes, and reduce costs and get leaner across the board, there’s little reason to believe that 2021 will be an easy year for anyone. The more effectively you can leverage technology to fight off disruptions, the better.
Of course, Industry 4.0 is more of a concept than a concrete technological solution—which means that adopting the right Industry 4.0 technology to make your business more resilient isn’t always a straightforward task. You need to take a hard look at your own IT infrastructure, your own particular supply chain processes, and your overall risk and risk management model. Even with a clear view of these things, it can still be difficult to get a handle on what the right technology will look like. Luckily, we’re here to help—by offering 5 critical features that your Industry 4.0 technology solutions should have.
Two of the basic ideas behind Industry 4.0 are connectivity and visibility: the more connected every touchpoint on the value chain is to every other touchpoint, the more easily planners can track supply chain activity, generate optimal plans, and ultimately execute those plans in a cost effective way. If connectivity and visibility are the goals, interoperability is the technical backbone that helps you achieve them. What does this mean in practice? It means that any new solution you’re considering should be compatible with your other solutions—not only that, it should be able to easily connect and share information with those solutions. The goal here is to avoid the walls and silos that often crop around data in different environments and thus create processes where different solutions—even those used by your suppliers or customers—integrate easily with one another. Without this integration, building out smart, analytics-driven processes will be difficult or impossible.
2. Information Transparency
By the same logic that we saw above, you’ll also want to prioritize solutions that boost your information visibility and transparency. In practice, this might look like a planning module that can easily ingest data from a whole host of different sources—from sensors to ERP software to live transportation tracking data—and then make it easy to visualize that data as needed. To make this a reality, you need to be working with systems that can exchange data easily and instantaneously, such that planners up and down the chain are able to access real-time supply chain insights that can help them stay resilient and adapt to changing circumstances.
3. Analytics Integration
By putting yourself in a position where data flows easily from one touchpoint to the next, you can pave the way for the AI- and machine learning-driven analytics processes that are so crucial to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. With real-time flows of production data, for instance, you can use ML-powered algorithms to identify the warning signs of an impending machine breakdown, and then proactively schedule maintenance before the disruption can actually occur—resulting in a reduction in the costs associated with unplanned downtime. By the same token, you can use advanced predictive analytics to forecast future transport capacities and prices, such that you’re able to lock in favorable rates outside of the traditional 1-2 day transport planning window. These are just examples of some of the ways that analytics technology can add value for planners—but this only works if you’re conscientious of analytics integration during the procurement process for your software. This might mean seeking out, say, ERP or S&OP solutions that have AI-powered analytics baked in, or it might just be a matter of making sure that whatever buy has add-on modules or other integration that make smarter forecasting and optimization possible. If these features are missing from a piece of technology, that’s a serious red flag that suggests you may not be purchasing something that will continue to be valuable as your processes and your IT evolve.
4. Cloud Capabilities
The idea of future-proofing—i.e. making sure that the technology you adopt today will still work in future iterations of your technology stack, like we saw above with analytics integration—is crucial to the way we think about Industry 4.0. This is a technology paradigm that’s meant to evolve over time as the most practical ways to leverage it become more apparent, just as its applications will evolve as the global technological landscape changes. For this reason, you should always ensure that any Industry 4.0 technology you utilize is built to work in the cloud. With on-prem solutions, you have to actively work to keep your solutions up-to-date, and you’ll have to change out servers every few years—in short, you risk saddling yourself with technology that could become obsolete within a matter of years. Plus, you can potentially wind up with data silos when localized deployments can’t be easily scaled to other plants or locations. With cloud solutions, there’s no such issues. Instead, your provider keeps everything up-to-date, and the nature of the cloud ensures scalability and ease of future integrations.
Okay, let’s say you’re evaluating technology that’s future-proof, analytics-powered, and designed with interoperability and data transparency in mind—what else do you need to make a particular solution work? The simple answer is: support. There are plenty of software suites out there that have sophisticated analytics and planning capabilities, but if they’re too sophisticated to actually be successfully integrated into your IT stack, they're useless. That’s why you want a provider that specializes in actually helping their customers to integrate new solutions and design better business processes around them. More than that, you’ll want folks who can offer ongoing support with your technology and your supply chain in general. There are plenty of solutions out there that are designed to be industry-agnostic—but for manufacturing and supply chain, it’s often useful to have a specialist.