Industry 4.0 - Don’t fear the future, prepare for it

4 min read

Revolutions rarely go other than two ways. They either result in violence and destruction amidst sweeping change or there can be a peaceful transition whereby change comes with minimal disruption

In the case of industrial revolutions, it is impossible to enter a new phase without there being winners and losers as a result of disruption. Businesses naturally fall by the wayside as new incumbents take centre stage and manufacturers today know their industry is currently undergoing a revolution, and they are naturally nervous about what the future holds.

The change we are living through currently is dubbed Industry 4.0 or Industrial IoT and is the era of smart machines and automation. Through the Industrial Internet of Things otherwise known as IIoT, and machine to machine communications, manufacturers will have a treasure trove of data insights at their fingertips. Advances in big data analytics will mean that AI assisted systems can dig through masses of data to produce valuable insights that were not available previously. Factory machines have reached a point where they can self-diagnose themselves, leading to predictive maintenance capabilities and dramatic reductions of industrial inefficiencies in the factory. Welcome to industry 4.0.

While IIoT opens the door to a host of new opportunities such as cost reduction, quality improvement and business growth, the prospect of gearing up for the next industrial revolution sends a shiver down some manufacturers’ backs. Implementing IIoT solutions introduces changes not only in a factory’s IT environment, but also in the ways IT interacts with production systems and field devices. Thus, it can be difficult to grasp the complex requirements and considerations.

The barrier of fear

As with any prospect of major change, there are those who are fearful of undertaking the transition into a new era. Perhaps the biggest fear is the economic impact a failed deployment may have on a manufacturer’s business. As digital manufacturing and IIoT systems are deployed in the field, any unsuccessful deployments could lead to significant production downtime and put a dent in manufacturer’s business profits.

Additionally, there is the technological issue relating to cyber-physical systems integration. IIoT is about bridging the physical and digital worlds based on the deployment of Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) in the manufacturing shop floor. Modern machines and manufacturing automation devices are typical examples of CPS systems, since they provide interfaces to the digital world, such as data acquisition. However, this is not the case with the vast majority of existing legacy machines and devices, which lack interfaces to cyber systems. Converting these legacy devices to modern CPS systems is a daunting task but one that is vital for acquiring data that can lead to intelligent capabilities like predictive maintenance.

Lastly, you need the right people. It’s no use converting and upgrading your factory floor for the new era if you don’t have a team who understands the new systems. A team with strong digital skills, including both IT experts and digitally skilled workers is needed. Assembling such a team is challenging given the well documented talent gap in leading IT technologies. Manufacturers will need to invest in training and educating their employees in order to be successful in their IIoT endeavors.

Five steps to alleviate manufacturers fears

Businesses are right to be wary of the importance of these three factors and undertaking this kind of IT change is no small task. But there are ways to proof your business from becoming the stuff of technology upgrade nightmares. Below are 5 key steps to prioritise which can give manufacturers the best chance to embark on a successful IIoT deployment:

1. Process Design and Reengineering: Even the simpler IIoT deployment starts with a concrete user story. Outline the problem to be addressed, the main actors involved, such as production managers, production engineers, maintenance engineers, factory IT managers, as well as the envisaged digital solution. It’s vital to start with a design and reengineering blueprint to drive the specification of the digital modules of the solution, such as interfaces to data sources and databases, data stores to be used, data analytics applications needed, as well as data visualisation dashboards to be developed.

2. Pilot Testing and Workforce Training: Before the solution starts operating on the manufacturing line, test, test and test again. Thorough testing should take place either in a lab environment or in a pilot production line. On the other hand, small and medium sized manufacturers should establish small scale lab infrastructures, where digital manufacturing solutions can be tested prior to their deployment in the plant. The testing doesn’t just end with equipment either. A systematic training of end users on the IIoT solution should take place. End-users must be trained not only on how to use the technology but also on the operational details of the digital manufacturing process.

3. Field Connectivity: Field connectivity is an integral element of every IIoT manufacturing solution, indispensable both for acquiring data for further analysis and for conveying commands to field systems and devices. Connectivity tends to be a cross-cutting and cross-layer function in IIoT systems, as both edge and cloud modules should be able to access field data directly. A large number of protocols can support the implementation of field connectivity.

4. Data Analytics and Knowledge Extraction: Following the implementation of field connectivity for data collection and automation, data analytics algorithms must be executed based on real-life field data and/or simulated data. Analytics will lead to new knowledge about the production processes, such as new quality and maintenance patterns, prediction of a machine’s parameters and more. Moreover, data analytics can be used in order to simulate or even drive the behavior of field devices.

5. Cybersecurity: Any IIoT solution should be secure by design. Security measures and policies should be identified early on, as part of the inception and design of the solutions’ architecture. Currently in the UK there exists no universal framework for IIoT security. However, UK manufacturers would benefit from taking a look at the Industrial Internet Security Framework (IISF) developed in the US which is valuable for securing devices and services at the field, edge and cloud levels.

It should also be noted that the shift to IIoT and digital manufacturing is a strategic commitment and a long-term journey, not a single project. The deployed solution should be continually tracked to ensure proper operation and to identify any need for additional developments and fine tuning. An agile and iterative approach to developing and deploying additional features should be used to boost continuous improvement.

These five steps form the basis of any successful industrial IoT deployment and if followed, businesses can overcome the barriers stopping them from unleashing its benefits. The transition to industry 4.0 will be crucial for manufacturers to remain competitive and successful in the new world. So don’t fear the revolution. Join it.

Author details: Jamie Bennett, VP of Engineering, IoT & Devices at Canonical