The ongoing Industry 4.0 revolution has the potential to transform how companies organize, operate and profit. At the same time, manufacturers are struggling to pinpoint and extract value from this new ability to gather seemingly limitless amounts of data.
The ideal of Industry 4.0 is a perpetually-connected network of sensors embedded in equipment and components transmitting real-time data to complementary artificial intelligence (AI). Ultimately, that AI should be able to provide insights from the data and adjust production as needed.
However, without fully developed turnkey solutions, some manufacturers are finding themselves overloaded with big data from the factory floor but unable to leverage it effectively, according to experts.
“From my experience, people aren’t collecting the data with any purpose in mind, other than that it might be useful one day,” Mike Cotter, director of digital product at Walker-based Feyen Zylstra LLC, told MiBiz. “That just leads to an overwhelming amount of data and then trying to figure out retroactively what to do with the data.”
Deploying open-ended technology can be mind-boggling to manufacturers who have yet to discover or create software that will harness the information. A better strategy for manufacturers dipping their toes into sensors and even into AI is to collect specific data related to a known issue or tactical purpose, Cotter said.
“Data related to part quality or being able to see if a failure is really a failure are ways of deploying solutions, getting data in and taking action, as opposed to just collecting everything off the plant floor and not being able to zone in on any issues,” he said.
Instead of collecting data for the “sake of collecting data,” manufacturers should think of the process and analysis in terms of “good engineering practices,” JR Automation CEO Bryan Jones told MiBiz.
“You still need to determine accurate problem statements and understand those problems very well so that you can apply the right pieces of data to then solve those problems effectively,” Jones said. “The answer is not going to jump out of data. You still have to do the work of understanding what the problem is and really pushing yourself forward.”
In a 2014 PricewaterhouseCoopers global survey on the state of the adoption of Industry 4.0 across a wide range of industry sectors including aerospace, defense and security, automotive, electronics and industrial manufacturing, only a third of respondents had begun to implement the technology. By 2018, the most recent year available, that statistic had increased to 95 percent of respondents.
However, of the respondents surveyed most recently, 66 percent said their leadership did not have a clear vision for the digital future, a percentage that has remained stagnant since the survey began.
“This means that there are only a few select companies that have really understood digital transformation and industrial IoT as a strategic topic that encompasses the entire company, while the others are doing piecemeal installations, pilots here and there, but do not truly have a vision of what it takes to become digital in operations,” Reinhard Geissbauer, partner at PwC Strategy& Germany, said in a report on the results.
Only 10 percent of companies were determined to be “aggressively innovative” champions of digital transformation, and most of them were based in the Asia-Pacific region, which is a shift from when the survey began.
“In 2014, Europe and partially North America were leading the way with creating new technologies and with really setting the standards for Industry 4.0,” Geissbauer said. “This has dramatically changed now, with Asia being clearly in the lead.”
Companies who excel at adopting Industry 4.0 or IoT technology can expect 16 percent cost savings through 2023, versus 10 percent for novices in the digital space, according to the data.
“As a whole, the internet of things is a slow, slow-moving target,” Mark Ermatinger, CEO of Zeeland-based Industrial Control Service Inc., told MiBiz. “Everybody knows they need to do it. They just don’t know how to get it done and are not committed to doing it yet.”
Still, in a disconnect between tech companies and Industry 4.0 users, the technology continues to roll out uphill.
“People are just not sure what to do with it,” Ermatinger said.
For vendors who listen to and develop solutions alongside manufacturers, small wins and big opportunities abound. For example, Industrial Control formerly sold a “wireless box” that would get a signal from a sensor that was embedded onto a motor. The sensor would track the motor’s vibration and temperature and the device would learn the threshold at which the motor was functioning properly. If the motor was vibrating too much or the temperature was too high, the device would send an alarm through I.T. to the maintenance room.
However, the system was often too complicated to deploy and use, according to Ermatinger.
“The (manufacturing) staff didn’t really trust that it was going to give them enough value back, so they kind of sat on it and didn’t do anything with it for probably the last five years,” he said.
Another vendor recognized the usability issues and built a “complete turnkey system” that learns faster, costs less and is easier to install. Plus, it is integrated into the technology people are already comfortable using.
“When there’s a problem, it will send a text message to your phone and all the data will go up into the cloud through a cellular modem,” he said. “The big thing is they can deploy that without being an expert and not even getting I.T. involved.”
In order for IoT and Industry 4.0 to gain traction and bring value to manufacturers, it must be simplified, according to Ermatinger.
Although plenty of companies, including giants like Microsoft, are working to bridge the digital divide between usable technology and factory floors, Ermatinger doesn’t expect new real-world, usable networks and artificial intelligence to be created overnight.
“I tell people to just start with baby step one. Here’s a turnkey package that will allow you to set it up, learn the data and then designate somebody’s cell phone that is going to get a text message when (equipment) is about ready to fail,” he said. “We’re on Industry 4.0 now, but there is probably a 5.0, 6.0 and 7.0 coming.”