This year, the shift in industry is toward digital transformation. In the process, manufacturers have been encouraged to invest in new technologies, with automation being the key technological driver. Year 2019 saw the trial of the first 5G smart-factory in the UK, but what will 2020 bring?
While it’s been several years since we first encountered term Industry 4.0, we’re not quite ready to leave this particular buzzword in its founding decade.
The automation of manufacturing processes is at a turning point. Since the advent of the programmable logic controller (PLC), a number of automation islands have evolved that automate isolated steps in the manufacturing process. For example, a six-axis robot can stack and palletise products in a factory, but a manufacturer would need to invest in different types of automation to fully automate its production line. Although this process-specific approach can result in some operational efficiency improvements, it this does not provide a comprehensive, integrated view of manufacturing and, thus, doesn’t harness all the benefits of a complete automation system.
Data in Industry 4.0
Vertical integration in Industry 4.0 looks to unite all logical layers in a business for free-flowing information. Increasingly, organisations are demanding a seamless connection between IT and operational technology (OT) to provide an integrated and holistic view of manufacturing and business operations. This infrastructure has been deployed successfully in many facilities, but in 2020 we can truly begin to reap the rewards.
Vertical integration delivers multiple streams of data, but it doesn’t make decisions. Successful deployment should enable organisations to respond to changing markets and seamlessly spot new opportunities. We’re already collecting the data – let’s do something with it.
Improvements in software addresses this trend with highly-scaleable, simple-to-use, flexible and easy to implement platforms. Linking data from the sensor to the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, intelligent software that has been specifically developed with vertical integration in mind provides clear visualisation of how to use vertical data.
The software evolution
Trends like vertical integration prove that data is an invaluable asset for manufacturers. According to a 2017 IBM study, 90% of data available at the time of the study was created in the last two years. Ever-growing volumes of data are being extracted from manufacturing processes, providing important information about quality, maintenance and process optimisation. Unfortunately, many of today’s solutions offer little flexibility in the collection, evaluation and analysis of these data points. If information from production processes can’t be properly evaluated and used, manufacturers can’t reap the benefits.
In 2020, automated reporting and analytics functions must become standard. This technology is no longer a luxury, but is now essential to allow for effective interpretation, turning data into valuable information and providing important insights for process improvement.
Strengthening security in heterogeneous technologies
Production today is an integration of many heterogeneous technologies developed using different standards. Whilst most manufacturers are aware of the security needs of increasingly smart factories, the presence of multiple communication standards on the factory floor can make security a complicated task.
To ensure machines, sensors and software systems can communicate effectively in the long term, choosing one software platform that can communicate across all platforms is beneficial. Furthermore, manufacturers should not overlook the need for this software to uphold the same security standards as information technology - encrypting communications, ensuring binaries are signed, and developing regular updates.
It’s clear that software will play a significant role in the future of production automation and could be a main driver of Industry 4.0 for the next decade. Data collection certainly isn’t a new practice for manufacturers, but what they choose to do with it is set to change.
From SMEs to large corporations, implementing cutting-edge software should be a priority, no matter the size of the business. Manufacturers should focus on selecting technology carefully, focusing on scaleable platforms that are easy to understand and implement.
Looking forward to 2020, digitalisation should be approached in a practical manner; ultimately, a steady, incremental transformation is better than a failed one.