Almost everyone agrees that the internet has transformed the way we live. On a personal level, we can connect with friends or family, exchange information or access vast amounts of data instantaneously. Further, we are beginning to see this ability to exchange information occurring not just between individuals but between individuals and devices.

Smart places

Just look at the monitoring capabilities and the exchange of data that can occur in a “smart home.” You can arm or unarm all remotely through a smartphone connected to the internet.

Meanwhile, “smart factories” promise to transform manufacturing even more dramatically than the “smart home” has revolutionized our home experience. As part of the global megatrend known as Industry 4.0, these factories of the future will increase efficiency, thanks to automated machines and embedded nano-sensors, which communicate proactively with each other, with factory workers or managers, and even the very parts they manufacture.

Things to come

How will this transition reshape the factory floor? In all likelihood, it will begin to happen as more and more machines are enabled with sensors that monitor machine performance. With the volume and type of data available, on a small scale, it will mean that a machine will be able to monitor, and actually predict, when it will require maintenance and then automatically notify maintenance staff through a wearable device what exactly needs to be serviced.

On a grander scale, it could eventually mean that when a consumer buys an automobile at a dealership, the purchase transaction actually communicates a signal to the manufacturer that that model is no longer in inventory, and another should be built. This manufacturing signal then would automatically signal all other vendors in the supply chain to replenish their inventories as well. No longer will constant human monitoring and administration of systems be required — the power of data flowing seamlessly between systems and devices will trigger routine and repetitive tasks.

“With the volume and type of data available, on a small scale, it will mean that a machine will be able to monitor, and actually predict, when it will require maintenance...”

“By 2025, experts predict that Industry 4.0 and the internet of things (IoT) will become mainstream, and based on the velocity of change, I believe that will hold true — if not occur even faster ” relates David Lechleitner, senior product marketing manager at Epicor, a leading provider of business management software for industrial manufacturers. He adds that in leading-edge companies, “It’s starting to happen today,” with sophisticated machines already communicating with each other on the factory floor. Very soon, we will see machines communicate with other machines and with their human counterparts without regard to time or geographic limitations.

Maximizing connection

To achieve the connectivity needed for Industry 4.0, data tools are evolving rapidly. In the past, traditional ERP solutions, which integrate data and supports planning companywide, required significant human intervention. “People had to put good data in to get good data out,” Lechleitner explains. “As IoT removes the need for human intervention on routine and repetitive tasks, and data flows seamlessly, humans are left doing what they do best which is managing and humanizing the exception.”  

As with any new or disruptive technology, Lechleitner observes, “Manufacturers only have a 5 to 10 year window to make hay or get left behind.” How can manufacturers get ready now for the factory of the future? “Make judicious investments,” Lechleitner advises. One smart strategy is to start transitioning information capabilities and infrastructure to the cloud, “because Industry 4.0 is built under the assumption of data available anywhere, anytime, and in any place — that is the essence of cloud.” Then, once that potential roadblock is addressed, the next step is to “focus on solutions that integrate with machine controls on the factory floor.”

Industry 4.0 isn’t just cool — it’s a necessity, if a manufacturer expects to stay relevant to their customers. “With the competitive landscape, global growth patterns and a dwindling skilled workforce, manufacturers need to embrace the right technology as a differentiator,” says Lechleitner. “These are truly impactful times where success or failure can literally rest on one decision.”