Widely considered to be a trusted authority on all things Industry 4.0, Thomas Kelly serves as executive director and CEO of Troy-based Automation Alley, where he oversees strategic planning and all ongoing activities for the Industry 4.0 knowledge center. Kelly has developed programs and resources that help businesses increase revenue, reduce costs and make strategic decisions through Industry 4.0 strategies. He spoke with MiBiz about how manufacturers are reacting during the pandemic and how they should approach Industry 4.0 technologies — sooner rather than later.
Have we seen the merits of Industry 4.0 on display during the COVID-19 pandemic as it played a role in helping manufacturers solve unique challenges?
It’s been really bittersweet. Here we are involved in this terrible pandemic that is taking a real human toll. Companies that were moving along this digital path when the pandemic hit and we had to go into lockdown, those companies that have been preparing fared very well. It tended to be those companies that had a lot of white-collar workers that a lot of their work was involved in intellectual capital and idea generation and those kinds of things. … Those that didn’t prepare are left lamenting how difficult this environment is.
What barriers do companies face when it comes to implementing strong Industry 4.0 strategies?
The barrier is almost always related to culture. It’s not about money anymore and it’s not about technology. Technology is cheap enough for everyone to implement. It’s the culture. They can’t think differently — in other words: ‘This is the way we’ve always done it. We’ve had these machines that we’ve had for 50 years and this is the way we do it and we understand how to put people to work around the assets we have.’ … The silver lining in this pandemic is that the culture has been blown up completely. The pandemic required us to think differently.
Do you think many manufacturers consider Industry 4.0 as an all-or-nothing strategy when they can really implement some of this technology individually?
I don’t think they’re thinking it’s an all or nothing — I think they’re thinking ‘I really don’t have a handle on what this means.’ Even if I wanted to spend a dollar, where do I put that dollar? We have 1,100 members at Automation Alley. What we say to our members is that the very first thing you have to do is you have to survive. You cannot plan for the future unless you survive the next six months (with the pandemic). You have to do everything you can, and if that involves technology, great. If it doesn’t involve technology, that’s great, too.
What’s a good starting point for a manufacturing company that gets a little overwhelmed looking at all the components and technology associated with Industry 4.0?
It’s not a plug for us, but we get paid by the state of Michigan to do assessments with small and medium manufacturers. Let’s go in and see what you do and then try to figure out where you should pay attention when you look at this Industry 4.0 landscape. Do you look at 3-D printing first? Do you look at Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) first? Do you look at artificial intelligence first? We do that with hundreds of companies. We help assess them on what they should pay attention to.
Try to understand just a little bit about Industry 4.0 and the different technologies. As you’re (doing that), ask yourself which technologies scare you. With technologies where you’re thinking, ‘Wow, that could put me out of business,’ that’s a very good one to focus on. … Turn the threat into an opportunity.
Are more manufacturers further along in Industry 4.0 than they might give themselves credit for?
No. (Laughs.) Plain and simple — there’s a one-word answer. The reason I say that is I think we’ve done a great job collecting and analyzing data like putting sensors on everything and getting data and being able to become more efficient in sharing that data between our suppliers and customers. It then seems like you’re doing a lot of great work in Industry 4.0. The problem is, these sensors and data are going on Industry 2.0 and 3.0 machines and what’s happening is the whole business model is shifting. … I need to not only do Industry 4.0 in the sense that I’m making what I know today more efficient, I need to have a path that says when it is appropriate to abandon ship and get on the next ship.
Like in any industry, it’s evolve or die. But how long do manufacturers have?
The evolution is accelerating. I don’t have a million years to evolve from sea to land and grow legs. You have to evolve much more quickly because the tech industry is moving so rapidly; software iterates so quickly. It’s all virtual — it can iterate, iterate and iterate without worrying about physical production that slows the process down. Technology is going to continue to evolve at a very rapid pace, and if you’re not evolving at the same rapid pace, you’re going to pay a price for that. No one can predict what that price is. It can be different for everyone.