Whenever a new idea or technology comes along, there’s always a mixture of real insight and hype. With Industry 4.0—the fourth industrial revolution that’s poised to build new manufacturing paradigms out of automation and machine-to-machine communication—things are no different: for every carefully considered opinion on the trajectory of this technology, there’s another opinion that’s little more than idle speculation. If you’re a manufacturer, this can put you in a difficult position: how do you know whether Industry 4.0 and its related technologies are the real deal?
More than that, how do you know which elements of Industry 4.0 to prioritize, which technologies to invest the most heavily in, or how to set expectations with other stakeholders within your organization? These are good questions, and providing good answers requires you to have a clear understanding of what we mean when we say Industry 4.0. To do this, you first need to cut through all of the myths.
Myth #1: Industry 4.0 Is Overhyped
Let’s start with the biggest and most pernicious myth out there: that Industry 4.0 is all hype and no substance. Given the sheer amount of hype out there, it’s understandable that you might come to think that Industry 4.0 is just a passing fad—but in point of fact it’s rooted in very real technologies and strategies that are already making waves across the global production chain. Things like AI, advanced analytics, automation, machine-to-machine communication, and the industrial internet of things (IIoT) can each individually power big improvements to your value chain. Industry 4.0 is founded on the premise that these technologies, taken together, are more than the sum of their parts. The IIoT combined with AI can have an exponential impact on your business; machine-to-machine communication combined with machine learning can do the same. In this way, technologies that are impactful on their own power workflows that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago.
Myth #2: It Requires a Complete Overhaul of Your Systems
Like we said above, Industry 4.0 isn’t a matter of installing one monolithic software solution or adding one key technology to your value chain. Rather, it’s about letting different technologies work with one another to add value in new ways. For this reason, it’s simply not the case that manufacturers need to burn it all down and start from scratch in order to create an effective smart factory. Even in a small job shop, you can upgrade your technology one piece at a time: maybe your first step is to install IIoT devices throughout the factory floor, in order to monitor goods in production. This can yield value right away in the form of increased visibility. Then, once that's been implemented successfully, you can start in on machine learning integration, in order to turn that data into insights. From there, you might begin to increase the amount of automation you’re using in tandem with those insights—and before you know it you have a fully-fledged smart factory.
Myth #3: It Will Replace Human Planners
For some people, the automation part of the Industry 4.0 equation is a real sticking point—they worry that automated planning and production workflows will make humans obsolete and put millions of people out of a job. While it’s certainly true that the nature of industrial employment could change as a result of the impending technological paradigm shift, the point of these connected, digital workflows isn’t to replace human beings. On the contrary, the goal is to utilize technology to make humans more effective at their jobs. If you’re a production planner, this might mean that your analytics processes are able to automatically put scheduled machine downtime on your production calendar, to save you the mental effort of mapping out time to take proactive steps against breakdowns. Since this frees up some of your time and attention, you’re able to spend an extra chunk of your day using Digital Twins to visualize potential new shop floor arrangements. On the flip side, if you work on the factory floor itself, this augmentation might come in the form of IIoT integration with tablets and other displays that give you critical information at a glancing—thereby making it easier to monitor production flows.
Myth 4: It’s Too Expensive for SMEs
Because the general vision that most people have of Industry 4.0 is fairly futuristic, smaller businesses tend to get it into their heads that Industry 4.0 transformations are simply not affordable for anyone but the largest global players in the manufacturing sector. And yet, as we saw above, Industry 4.0 adoption doesn’t require you to lay out a ton of cash up front. On the contrary, smaller businesses can adopt different technology solutions as their budgets allow, building up to fully-formed Industry 4.0 workflows over time. Because each piece of technology you invest in will hopefully be able to power operational improvements in its own, you can even re-invest saved costs and increased revenue into additional technology adoptions. In this way, you complete your digital transformation within your timeline and your budget. Most businesses are investing in analytics technology any way, which means that part of the challenge here is simply choosing the right technology for your needs.
5. There’s Only One Way to Adopt Industry 4.0
Hopefully you got the impression from the paragraphs above that Industry 4.0 is a fluid concept—one that’s going to look different in different settings. Indeed, it’s pure myth that there’s just one right way to drive towards Industry 4.0. Different businesses will prioritize different elements of this new paradigm, and that’s okay! As long as you’re able to align your technology adoptions with clear operational goals and KPIs, you should feel empowered to approach the fourth industrial revolution however makes the most sense for your organization. You should even feel free to adjust mid-course if something isn’t working. To make this a possibility, you might consider taking a flexible, Postmodern ERP approach (in which disparate IT elements are made to interwork without a monolithic, overarching system). These new technologies are meant to build off of one another, so do your best to give them the connections and the data-streams they need to work together for your bottom line.