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Reframing the Importance of Industry 4.0: Protect to promote

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible)

The unprecedented pace at which businesses have been forced to adapt since the onset of Covid-19 has led to a revaluation of what is desired - and what is necessary - when it comes to future-proofing operations. In the case of manufacturing, the fallout from the pandemic has been twofold; the immediate need to protect workers through minimizing exposure to the virus and now, increasingly prevalent, the economic concerns in regard to reduced output.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) suggests that overall industrial production in the United States has experienced the sharpest decline since the country demobilized after World War Two. The dual concerns of health and long-term stability are not easily solved in tandem, with one often to the detriment of the other. New forms of lean manufacturing, however, do possess the potential to simultaneously protect and promote organizations. The WEF claims “Industry 4.0 technologies are necessary for survival”. While true, this statement does not paint the full picture. Innovation will become the lifeblood of manufacturing in the years to come; not just to get-by, but to fuel smarter rebuilding than we’ve ever seen previously.

“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable.”  -M. Scott Peck

Although a reference to human behavior at an individual level, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s assessment of discovering a better way through discomfort can also be applied to businesses and industries in today’s world. The current challenge - one that could have been foreseen in a general sense but is nigh on impossible to prepare for - has forced manufacturers to question the very foundations of their operations.

According to the latest research from McKinsey, 39 percent of manufacturers have already implemented a nerve-center or control-tower approach, to increase end-to-end transparency across the whole of the supply chain. In addition, almost a quarter want to fast-track automation programs, in a bid to help stem worker shortages following Covid-19. Granted, much of this would have been implemented at some point in the near future, but the shock of removing workers from factory floors almost overnight, along with a reduced capacity for production, has forced the hand of manufacturing leadership and resulted in a re-prioritization of certain technologies.

IoT and robotics in harmony

The silver lining for manufacturing is that, as an industry, it was already primed for evolution. Around 80 percent of process lines included some form of automation before the pandemic hit, so the groundwork was already there. The removal of the human 20 percent naturally brought things to a halt - as a business, you cannot deliver 80 percent of a project or only build 80 percent of a product - but the distance needed to travel to fill the gap does not represent a particularly big leap of faith. Especially because the shift to adopting robots is not technological; it is purely socio-psychological.

Technology has always been leaps and bounds ahead of public perception. When it comes to robots, however, there has been a whole generation that grew up with the Terminators and the iRobots of this world. It means the existing narrative around robots is predominately one of threat, which then trickles down within industry to manifest in the idea that robots will take jobs. This is far from the truth. In fact, manufacturing can become synonymous with early-adoption, full-scale robotics, that allows for businesses to redefine where real value from both person and machine is added.

Greater automation is supported by the availability of predictive analytics on factory floors and within supply chains, which many manufacturers have already embraced. Achieved through a web of connected sensors and nodes, this technology can help businesses extend the life cycles of the industrial devices on their roster by knowing the exact state of each machine. These techniques also provide the infrastructure for other Industry 4.0 technologies, including robots, as the sensors can track performance in near real-time and identify where additional opportunities can be incorporated into the manufacturing proposition. In other words, it is the existence of data-driven, smart machinery that can boost confidence in an automation uptake.

The introduction of advanced robotics alongside this IoT machinery, therefore, is the next logical step, and will allow businesses to physically protect employees, retrain workers, and learn from current pitfalls induced by Covid-19. A largely roboticized supply chain would change the role of human beings’ as those boots on the ground ‘workers’. Moving into supervisory roles or freshly created ones, a lot of which can be done remotely, would allow more people to contribute to the discovery of new innovations within manufacturing, and ensure talent is retained within the industry.

Evolving through apps

Greater innovation and output, however, is not simply realized through individual pieces of robotics hardware. Software has a vital role to play and will, in fact, be the aspect that allows manufacturers to not only survive but actually thrive.

Manufacturer owned robotics app stores, where businesses can tap into software to increase the purpose of their robotics hardware, will allow manufacturers to modify what their hardware can produce or the services they provide. This will enable all companies to prepare for the highest and lowest levels of demand, to fully optimize their robotic workforce and be ready for any unforeseen developments. In other words, downtime at a minimum at the worst of times and streamlined activity at the best. It is the modular capabilities of robots, via an app store, that will allow the manufacturing industry to be more flexible when unpredicted challenges present themselves.

Over time, software will replace hardware as the fundamental element in a robot’s value. Security and reliability will remain the building blocks, with collaboration opening the doors to smarter robots, able to extend their lifespans through a range of third-party apps. To address this need, containerized software packages - easy to create, safe to run, and able to update automatically and transactionally - have begun to emerge. Once a manufacturer opens up a robot’s APIs, 3rd party developers can create their own programs and evolve the use cases of a machine. The real value of a robot, therefore, will soon arrive alongside a comprehensive app store, which continually adds value to the hardware by extending its functionality.

Greater than the sum of the parts

The fact that Industry 4.0 is a collection of technologies means that it is often regarded as a form of high-level thinking and not entirely practical to implement, especially when industries like manufacturing are experiencing issues. But as individuals and organizations adapt to a culture of new priorities - the dual concerns of health and economic stability - intelligent infrastructure and roboticized workforces can help alleviate some of the strain. Together they represent the building blocks of manufacturing’s path out of the current landscape, and can position businesses to subsequently thrive.

Industry 4.0 will not only identify issues within a manufacturer’s supply chain preemptively, but contribute to more intuitive processes: better results, less downtime, and the removal of unexpected costs. Overlaying every device with IoT intelligence can be the answer to the pressures the manufacturing industry currently faces.

Tom Canning, Vice President of IoT and Devices, Canonical - The company behind Ubuntu