5 Questions for Evaluating Industry 4.0 Technology Solutions
Brian Hoey - November 13, 2018
In a recent poll, PwC found that while 60% of respondents were “dabbling” with Industry 4.0 technology, only 3% had truly achieved a working Industry 4.0 paradigm. To some of you, this might come as a big surprise. After all, Industry 4.0 has been the subject of countless news stories, opinion pieces, blog posts, and whitepapers in the last several years—almost all of them pointing out its unprecedented potential for changing the face of manufacturing. Some readers, on the other hand, probably aren’t surprised by this statistic in the slightest. Why? Because they know how difficult it can be to find and implement the kinds of technology solutions that make Industry 4.0 possible. Businesses often have to wade through jargon to understand what’s on offer, and a solution, once selected, might require large-scale operational changes that can be difficult to implement. To help mitigate some of these challenges, here are a few questions to ask yourself as you evaluate Industry 4.0 technology solutions for your manufacturing outfit.
1. Does it serve a particular business goal?
One of the many misconceptions about Industry 4.0 is that it works as a kind of cure-all for any industrial business woes, i.e. that these technology solutions will automatically affect change in a broad, sweeping way. In point of fact, things like IoT devices, real-time data visualizations, and other trappings of Industry 4.0 are only as valuable as the discrete business goals they serve. Let’s say you’re evaluating a transport planning system that uses RFID sensors and real-time traffic and routing information to improve the efficiency of your transport logistics. Ask yourself, “what concerns do I have with my current transport planning?” “In what measurable ways would I like it to improve?” If static routes resulting time wasted sitting traffic are a frequent problem that you’ve been trying to solve, a hypothetical solution like the one above might serve that goal. More than that, if you adopted the solution you would be able to evaluate it based on any changes in the rate of on-time deliveries or transport time. On the other hand, if you hadn’t identified specific issues or goals with your transport processes, it would be difficult to implement the solution in a deliberate, measurable way.
2. Will it increase visibility?
Once you’ve ascertained whether a given solution will actually address a specific business need that your company is experiencing, it’s time to think about the specific ways in which those needs are being addressed. After all, Industry 4.0 systems are typically built up over time, with new technologies integrating with one another as they’re introduced. This means that manufacturers need to have an eye towards their future IT needs as well as their most pressing day-to-day issues. The first and in some ways most valuable to way to do so is to ask, “will this technology increase visibility throughout my operations?” This is a particularly critical question because the connectivity and interoperability that make Industry 4.0 so valuable thrive on end-to-end (E2E) visibility. By giving human planners a clear, accessible picture of your current value chain, you make it possible for them to respond to disruptions more quickly and make better informed decisions. When it comes times to continue building up your new IT infrastructure, those same advantages will apply, helping you to build towards Industry 4.0 systems more quickly and easily. By contrast, a solution that reduces visibility or creates data silos will increase the likelihood of disruptions and slowdowns by keeping mission critical data out of planners’ hands, meaning that your goals will be harder to reach than ever.
3. Can it help reduce waste?
Okay, with visibility out of the way we can start getting a little deeper into what, exactly, a technology solution of this sort should accomplish. One of the things that many businesses look for is a solution that can help to reduce waste and inefficiency within the value chain. Naturally, this will relate back to whatever specific business aim you decide on, but waste reduction in general leads to added value in the shape of saved time or resources. How can you tell if a solution will help you accomplish this? Some specific features can help give you a clue. For instance, a system that has prescriptive analytics processes built in would likely be able to take whatever operational data you’re collecting and turn it into process insights (i.e. it might identify an unnecessary hub in your transport network, or a machine that’s being underutilized). By the same token, a machine learning program might decrease maintenance downtime by identifying potential machine breakdowns in advance and proactively scheduling around them.
4. Does it link OT and IT?
One of the most important parts of the Industry 4.0 paradigm is the introduction of internet of things (IoT) devices and other connected devices throughout your factory floor or transport network. With the use of these devices, manufacturers can gain a new level of insight into, and control over, their operations by monitoring and interacting with devices remotely in real time (ideally from a centralized digital control tower). In this way, your operational technology integrates with your software to create the kind of cyber-physical system around which Industry 4.0 revolves. When you sit down to evaluate a particular software solution, you should make sure that it’s capable of providing this link between OT and IT. Does the solution support IoT integration? Can it use real-time machine usage data in its calculations? If the answer is no, this could slow down future integrations and create data silos within your operation.
5. Does it support integration across the value chain?
By now, you’ve thoroughly kicked the tires and given due consideration to how successfully your hypothetical software solution would meet the needs of an Industry 4.0 environment. The next and last step is to look beyond the factory floor, and think about whether your software could effectively integrate with value chain touchpoints outside the bounds of your organization. Does the proposed software solution, for instance, support data imported from third parties? Does its reporting functionality enable you to share data with your clients or suppliers as necessary? Asking these questions will help you determine if the technology in question will improve visibility and connectivity (both, again, crucial to the smooth functioning of the Industry 4.0 supply chain) across organizational lines. If it can, you’ll be more likely to be able to drive towards increasingly collaborative, connected relationships both up- and down-stream. At the end of the day, increased collaboration is going to be one of the most powerful sources of added value that Industry 4.0 offers—and it’s imperative that you position your business to take advantage of that value by adopting the right technology.