A Guide to Digital-First Manufacturing in Industry 4.0

Published On: December 14th, 20214 min read

Industry 4.0 has been called many things, including “The Fourth Industrial Revolution.” While the technology behind this level of digital transformation may be inherently sophisticated, the concept at the heart of it is fairly straightforward.

It simply describes a situation where data analytics are thoroughly integrated into various industrial products, all in a way that allows businesses to accomplish their specific goals, to gain new insights into how their workflows function and to add as much value to the supply chain as possible.

According to one recent study, Industry 4.0 best practices were able to reduce costs in the automotive sector alone by $28 billion between 2016 and 2020. Another study indicated that first-wave Industry 4.0 adopters were able to increase productivity rates by as much as 30%. All told, it takes an average of just two years for companies that are making significant investments in Industry 4.0 to see those investments returned — a perfect storm if there ever was one.

Yet at the same time, all of this does pose a number of important questions. What does a digital-first manufacturing model actually look like? Should all companies adopt this strategy, or is it appropriate for only the largest out there? The answers to these questions do have easy answers, though they require you to keep a few important things in mind. 

Industry 4.0: The Future of Manufacturing Is Here

To be clear, adopting Industry 4.0 and going through this level of digital transformation is less the product of any one major move and is more about a series of smaller, more strategic ones. 

It involves embracing business intelligence and analytical tools. It leverages holistic automation to help offload as many of those important-yet-menial tasks as possible so that human employees can focus on matters that really need them. It’s about creating a manufacturing architecture that legitimately improves the efficiency of not just a business, but an entire industry.

It does this using concepts like the Industrial Internet of Things — a network of literally billions of devices that are all connected to one another, sending and receiving data at all times. This concept gives way to more advanced ideas like smart factories.

All of this is especially important given the increasing level of competition in the manufacturing space over the last few decades. As more competitors emerge, there is an urgent need for businesses to not only find new ways to reduce costs, but to also increase their own profitability and forge better experiences on behalf of their customers.

That, in essence, is why Industry 4.0 is so important; it allows even the smallest organizations out there to do all of this at the exact same time. 

Flexible manufacturing systems are one such execution of this concept that we’re already seeing used on factory floors around the world. They consist of not only processing workstations but also automated material handling tools, material storage mechanisms and more.

In this situation, a computer will allow machines on a factory floor to quickly identify and learn the difference between different parts that are being processed. With that, faster changeovers of operating instructions can be executed and the systems themselves can even perform the physical machine setup.

All of this means that not only are higher quality parts being produced faster than ever, but essential materials are always in the right place at the right time exactly when they’re needed. Through this level of programming, materials can be produced to even the most precise specifications without the need of an actual operator. Not only that, but human employees are free to focus more of their attention on matters that actually require them, thus increasing productivity even further.

Even something as seemingly straightforward as machine maintenance becomes far easier with everything Industry 4.0 brings with it. Using artificial intelligence and related concepts like machine learning, critical assets can essentially “diagnose” themselves and alert the proper employee whenever an issue is detected. This can allow them to schedule maintenance during less disruptive periods and address small problems today before they have a chance to become a much bigger and more expensive one tomorrow — all while preventing unplanned downtime and similar situations. 

These are the types of advantages that are simply impossible to produce without a digital-first manufacturing approach. Another recent study indicated that the global market for Industry 4.0 is expected to hit an enormous $300 billion by as soon as 2023. That’s an increase of 384% from just a few years earlier in 2018. 

Regardless of how you look at it, it’s a concept that has brought with it innovation that would have been unthinkable even as recently as a decade ago. It’s also exciting to think about what the next decade may have in store as a result. 

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