"The unique challenges of the global pandemic have only highlighted the need for continued Industry 4.0 adoption. With disparate workforces and operational inconsistency, troublesome gaps in whole-process visibility have made operating in a pandemic truly challenging. In the current environment, access to holistic real-time business info is arguably more critical than ever."
AI RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR AT STEFANINI
For those not in the tech sector, Industry 4.0 is one of those terms that is used more often than it is genuinely understood. It’s often conflated with digitalization or digital transformation, and while there is some overlap there, the reality is that digitization is a process, and Industry 4.0 is a broad term that actually refers to a cluster of emerging technologies, including cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing and cognitive computing/AI.
It is in how those technologies are integrated to communicate in real time and create manufacturing environments that are virtual, interchangeable, more decentralized, and more modular that is changing the industry landscape in fundamental ways.
That distinction may seem unimportant, but lingering confusion in the market around what Industry 4.0 is and how it works inevitably impacts a company’s ability to make the kinds of smart and strategic upgrades and investments required to fully realize the benefits of this game-changing suite of technologies.
With that in mind, let’s take a step back and clarify what makes Industry 4.0 so effective — not just how it works, but how you can make it work for you.
A Transformative Decade
For all of its cutting-edge mystique, the tech behind Industry 4.0 is a decade old at this point. In important ways, it has taken decision-makers nearly that long to figure out the best way to unlock its full potential: to leverage the connectivity, transparency and immediacy that creates new speed, new flexibility and next-level efficiencies — and introduces new customization capabilities.
Unsurprisingly, companies that recognized that potential have spent time and resources putting in smart sensors wherever they could and upgrading their technical infrastructure. In recent years, however, there’s been a growing understanding that the tech is just half of the equation.
The Data Dimension
With Industry 4.0, technology alone is not sufficient. The truly exciting potential of Industry 4.0 stems from its ability to bring two formerly distinct spheres together, blending IT with engineering and operations in ways that aren’t just mutually beneficial but create valuable new synergies.
In other words, to get the most out of this new tech, you need data analysis — with infrastructure in place to gather that data and determine what upgrades will have the biggest positive impact.
This is one of the most influential and important new trends in this space: decision-makers taking a clear-eyed look inside their companies and operations to figure out what their needs are and identifying and applying targeted Industry 4.0 solutions based on those specific needs and applications.
Overcoming New Challenges And Old Fears
One of the long-held concerns about the increased automation of Industry 4.0 has been the potential impact on human workers. Would it make skilled operators redundant? Happily, I believe the perils of automation have largely been overstated, and human operators will always need to be an integral part of an Industry 4.0 manufacturing environment.
The tools and tech of Industry 4.0 largely exist in harmony with trained professionals, which is one of the reasons user interfaces and user interactions remain an important differentiator for leading platforms and solutions.
The unique challenges of the global pandemic have only highlighted the need for continued Industry 4.0 adoption. With disparate workforces and operational inconsistency, troublesome gaps in whole-process visibility have made operating in a pandemic truly challenging. In the current environment, access to holistic real-time business info is arguably more critical than ever.
And in some ways, the stresses that the pandemic has imposed on companies have actually helped give decision-makers new insights into their systems and operations to understand the kind of connectivity solutions that work the way they need them to work.
Getting — And Staying — On The Cutting Edge?
Given the above context, what should decision-makers be doing to make sure they are optimizing their Industry 4.0 investments?
• Look in the mirror: Make sure you understand what you do and how you do it before investing in any new tech. Don’t just understand processes on the manufacturing floor, but develop a sophisticated model of front-, back-, and middle-office functionality and how it all relates.
• See the whole octopus: Industry 4.0 tech might be the head of your digital transformation “octopus,” but you need to be clear about all the different arms (customer relations, sales, manufacturing efficiency, marketing, operations, etc.) that are distinct but connected pieces of your operational organization.
• Get lean: At the speed that technology in this space is advancing, a five-year plan isn’t going to cut it — you have to move faster. But you also need to embrace a lean and agile approach: Replace long-term planning with long-term vision. See long but act short.
In other words, make specific plans for the near future — and ground those plans as part of a phased, interactive, flexible approach with a larger long-term goal — but understand that it’s OK to leave future specifics in the “to be decided” column.
If you’re setting out on a long road trip, it’s smart to bring snacks for the first two hours of your drive, but it’s also OK to leave future dining decisions for further down the road. If necessary, consult with a trusted professional partner to help you develop that road map with flexibility.
• Leverage people power: Finally, recognize that the key to Industry 4.0 success and an optimized digital transformation isn’t the tech — it’s the people using the tech. Think about the way your team works and engages with the tools and tech they need to get their jobs done. The best use of Industry 4.0 tools comes when adopters put the user at the center and fully leverage the human potential of their new systems and solutions.