Industry 4.0 represents the fourth and newest phase of the Industrial Revolution, one that is centered around interconnectivity, automation, machine learning, and real-time data. The Industrial Internet of Things, or IIoT, is a central facet of Industry 4.0, as it joins physical operations with smart digital technology, machine learning, and big data to create a more balanced and better-connected supply chain and manufacturing environment. Industry 4.0 brings real-time insights to light and connects software and staff regardless of their location.

Thus, manufacturers can leverage IIoT and by extension, Industry 4.0, to emerge stronger post-crisis, experts say.

They can use IIoT to transform factory data into meaningful and actionable information, say Deborah Holton, managing director of industry events for ASME, and Israr Kabir, business development manager, manufacturing, ASME.

Because IIoT enables highly informed, precise decisions across the manufacturing enterprise—including design, manufacturing, quality, service, repair and maintenance— a connected, well-informed organization can innovate faster, increase throughput, improve product quality, decrease resource consumption, and uncover process waste that is traditionally concealed, Holton and Kabir say.

Agility across the enterprise

Additionally, real-time insights into key factory metrics enables organizations to be more agile and respond quickly to shifting customer demands and new business opportunities.

“Manufacturers can drive continuous improvement and sustain profitability by identifying gaps in workflow, as compared to the as-simulated model, and quickly address problem areas or discrepancies,” Holton says.

Because IIoT allows manufacturers to improve the productivity of high-value human capital, data-empowered experts can oversee and manage larger operational footprints than would be possible using a traditional approach, she adds.

“With the current crisis, managing human interactions and touch points in a factory setting has become an issue for manufacturers,” she says. “IIoT enables organizations to monitor human activities and movements to create and manage a safer and more comfortable factory environment.”

The opportunity for manufacturing to leverage IIoT and artificial intelligence is only now scratching the surface, says Dean Phillips, production enhancement engineer at Link Systems and SME board member.

“Taking sensor feedback and processing it in the cloud provides new interfacing every day,” he says. “The IIoT interface is providing plugins and programs that can utilize the same information to maximize MRP programs.”

The key to all IIoT tools is training and preparation, he adds. 

“The foundation we build of knowledge will be the floors of our manufacturing success, tomorrow... or sooner. Upskilling and reskilling needs to take place now so companies can be in the best position moving forward,” he says.

Safer workforce

During a crisis, there are key areas on which manufacturers should focus to ensure they have the flexibility to adapt or pivot when needed, experts say.

Industry 4.0 allows for a safer workforce, since data can be obtained and managed remotely, requiring less exposure, says Phillips—which means less risk for all. Fewer face-to-face interactions reduce the likelihood of virus transmission, and “there is no question that a supervisor, operator, quality inspector at each phase of a parts travel can result in some level of contamination,” he explains.

With an Industry 4.0 approach, parts are loaded, unloaded and inspected using sensors, and inspection is completed with a vision system, he says. Integrated validation systems ensure quality, and robots load these parts into the second phase. Vibration sensors and other tonnage monitoring assure additional verification and part quality, and in each phase, the part is tracked and updated. 

“During this process, minimal handling is conducted to minimize exposure,” Phillips explains. “This data is processed at the machine level for safety and inspection but still is integrated up to the cloud where it is processed, and anomalies are identified via AI. This system determines how to improve and meet optimal performance.”

Ultimately, such software flexibility provides more options and integration, he says.

“The digital thread which links the manufacturing continuum through Industry 4.0 solutions transforms data into actionable intelligence,” says Holton. “This enables facts-based decisions and transparent communication to filter across the manufacturing enterprise. The data driven approach continuously improves factory efficiency, which in turn allows manufacturers to be more agile and acquire new types of customers and business opportunities.”

Maturing technologies such as additive manufacturing are also enabling manufacturers to produce a wider array of products and reduce risks associated with external global supply chains, say Holton and Kabir.

Benjamin Reese, marketing manager at Dimensional Control Systems Inc., says Industry 4.0 has ushered in tools that “are now becoming affordable and interconnected in a way that provides visibility into product quality like never before, at a pace and speed that is constantly increasing.”

While such new developments can be challenging for some manufacturers to implement since they can take time to learn and apply, Reese says, they’re crucial for certain industries to adopt—such as medical device manufacturers, who must “constantly battle rising costs, increasing regulation, decreasing product life cycles, and lengthening supply chains.”

Large-scale remote work

IIoT tools can help manufacturers transition through large scale remote work, a facet of the pandemic, experts say.

“IIoT combined with advanced cloud-based analytics tools allow engineers and other technical factory staff to monitor and diagnose equipment remotely,” says Holton. “Manufacturers can now access hard-to-find, high-demand experts, acquire immersive remote assistance from vendors or another site using technologies like augmented reality. Technical professionals on the design side of the house can use powerful cloud-based tools to collaborate and perform their roles from home. Digital twin solutions are allowing product design, testing, validation of manufacturing processes to all be performed virtually.”

Because IIoT allows large groups to access and share information, it makes it easier for staff to get the job done outside of the office, says Phillips.

“For example: machine parts per minute can be tracked with the job number for production; that same information can be processed to the tooling department to tell when a tool needs to be sharpened or serviced,” he says.

This also applies to maintenance departments, who schedule services based on machines strokes or rpm, he adds. 

“Each department now can access the data remotely

“Each department now can access the data remotely [and] cloud-based AI systems also can monitor and determine paths to improvement,” he says. cloud-based AI systems also can monitor and determine paths to improvement,” he says.

Supply chain improvements

Manufacturers can also use IIoT to reduce supply-chain costs and to optimize inventory levels, production planning, and transport utilization, experts say.

Availability of data, quality part traceability, in-process part tracking, and artificial intelligence (AI) cloud-based analysis are key, Phillips says. Since analysis can optimize the numbers needed to maintain “flow,” manufacturers can get crucial insights into job status, time-to-completion, and can prioritize job sequence. Such numbers can be tweaked within AI tools to implement risk analysis so that the most important elements stay the most important, he says. 

“Of course, all systems are only as good as the person programming them, and that’s why training and certification on lean manufacturing, as well as an understanding of all continuous improvement principles, must be company-wide,” he says. “Contaminated data is a problem, which is why IIoT is so much more important. It only shows true data.”  Q