Elusive Industry 4.0 dreams and cautions aired by pros

Panelists on an Industry 4.0 forum discussed how the pandemic and newer technologies will motivate companies to add automation. (ADI)

Everybody in tech knows that progress toward Industry 4.0 has been a long slog. Still, there are signs that the pandemic has put some bees in the pants of manufacturers including those that rushed into action to produce masks, ventilators and vaccines over the past 18 months.

The complexities of reaching the ill-defined and often marketing-driven Industry 4.0 have involved all the things that have haunted manufacturers for many decades. Plants cannot afford to install new gear that will only last as long as a smartphone, and instead must plan for equipment and network installations and software upgrades that can last 20 years or longer.

Also, there is now a wider recognition that supply chains are more interdependent than ever (partly because of Covid-19), so a manufacturer needs visibility into the supply of raw materials, but also downstream into how distributors and delivery companies are performing and what customers are saying about new products—including whether they arrived in good condition or not.

 Producers that are trying to reduce energy output will also want to gather and analyze data on how partners in their supply chain are meeting green goals. Companies also need to know if their production partners are keeping systems safe from cyberattacks.

Then, there is the problem of merging internal IT teams and functions with operational tech (OT) teams and functions.  A greater dependence on software over hardware means old-line corporations need to become skilled at hiring software engineers already in short supply.

The moniker “Industrial 4.0” may have sounded cool, progressive and meaningful (at least to academics) at one point, but today it hangs about the necks of many practitioners in the industrial segment who are wishing, and waiting, for not only new technology, but (more importantly) new thinking and strategy from top managers to be better prepared for crises like the pandemic and to even help preserve the Earth’s resources.

“The industrial space works on very, very long lifecycles,” said Martin Cotter, senior vice president of industrial, consumer and multi markets at Analog Devices “It’s a mistake to think that what got you to this point will get you to a new world...Everything has to be trusted…to last for 20 years and supported for 20 years.” He spoke during an online event on Monday, “Adaptable Industry 4.0: Leveraging Automation for a Changing World.” (A full replay is available online.)

While the topic of the online event was broad, it gave industry panelists a chance to air some concerns and some of their hopes and dreams.

Industry 4.0's start

For some perspective, it is valuable to understand how Industry 4.0 ever got kicked around as buzzword in the first place or why it even matters to professors at business schools or anybody else. To sum up, the term was used widely in Germany about 2011 to enliven that country’s manufacturing sector.  The 4.0 in the term refers to the 4th industrial revolution, one in which production systems are supposed to merge real and virtual worlds, which is happening in some sectors with robots and AI-driven machines on factory floors that operate on their own or cooperate with humans.

“The fourth industrial revolution takes the automation of manufacturing processes to a new level by introducing customized and flexible mass production technologies,” says a backgrounder on the topic on Cleverism. This means that machines will operate independently or cooperate with humans in creating a customer-oriented production field that constantly works on maintaining itself.” Design principles include: interoperability, virtualization, decentralization, real-time capability, modularity, and service orientation, meaning customer-oriented.

One hope for Industry 4.0  shared during Monday’s online event was for pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers to have more flexible and portable manufacturing capabilities that make it possible to quickly retool a plant for custom products in addition to traditional mass manufacturing of medicines and devices.

Johnson & Johnson strives toward modular 

CAR T-cell therapy needed for fighting cancer and custom human implants will require “much faster changeover [that will] only come about through more flexible, portable manufacturing,” said Ken Creasy, senior director of advanced technology capability centers for Johnson & Johnson. “We’re going to get better outcomes if we customize products for patients and customers.”

To attain scalable platforms in such manufacturing, “connectivity is the single biggest thing that’s needed,” Creasy said. He called for standards and applications that can be rapidly deployed at scale with the ability “to experiment and test things out….to make sure we de-risk things.”  J &J has worked with Analog Devices to test applications and devices.

 In turn, Cotter at ADI said such demands have led some chipmakers to manufacture chip designs with customer applications in mind.  “We have to think end use, full system, that can scale,” he said. “In the past, we could make a chip with a spec and now we have to design a solution for an owner.”

Many manufacturers run factory buildings and equipment that are decades old, which forces them to consider how they will integrate new hardware with older machines. “We’re not going to rip out entire manufacturing facilities and restart; we’re not,” Creasy said. “We have a team in Limerick, Ireland, looking at flexible, modular systems as a standard throughout all J&J and partner extensively with ADI to see what’s coming.”

Creasy said IT managers and executives need to start planning better for Industrial 4.0 with humility. “No company will have all the answers,” he said, while calling for standards that are acceptable to all partners. “It’s about having enough humility to understand it’s not about a single technology and it’s about packaged solutions with multiple technologies.”

 Standards are needed for a more flexible system approach but tension and friction will inevitably arise between companies in the process of making systems more open, he predicted. “But friction causes an oyster to produce a pearl.”

“As we look back at what happened during the past year, the Covid crisis led to a change in manufacturing and some reflection and humility,” Creasy added. “But these solutions don’t happen with one company.”

Role for Rockwell

Sujeet Chand, CTO at Rockwell Automation, said optimization of data collected by sensors in factories and segments of the supply chain will also require companies to agree on who needs to own the data generated across companies.

Rockwell is focused on simplifying and accelerating solutions for companies. “Companies are expecting a solution and don’t want all the bits and pieces to try to integrate a solution,” Chand said.

“We can only do a small percentage of Industry 4.0 and need partners like ADI to expand processing at communications and sensing,” Chand added. “With more sensing and time synchronous networks, we need a lot of semiconductor help there. With more wireless, that data needs to be moved up” for analysis and optimization of systems.

The academic view

Dr. Ron Adner, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, said despite the lengthy process toward achieving Industry 4.0 automation and the concerns offered by the panelists about progress toward that goal, he offered, “We’re well into the inflection point.”

“There’s a lot more independence [between companies] than we had in the past,” Adner said. “We are rewiring our interdependence.”

Adner said while supply chains have focused heavily on efficiency, he cautioned, “Efficiency is important but so is agility and sustainability.”

One goal of Industry 4.0 purports to reduce energy used in production of machines. Manufacturing around the globe uses 25% of all the energy generated. With better sensing and processing of data, factories will potentially have visibility into energy use across the supply chain. “Even a 5% reduction in energy is a huge savings,” Chand said.

As more companies institute Environmental, Social and Governance goals, there is clearly of late a focus on making the world better, Chand said. “Groups of like-minded companies are getting together to solve a problem and doing it seamlessly,” he said. “There’s a rich future to solving problems to save lives and save the planet. This has to happen."

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