Industry 4.0: how the concept became a reality

04 October 2021

Nick Elkin discusses how the idea of implementing technology into manufacturing processes has revolutionised production across the globe.

Industry 4.0 was a term coined by the German government in a report in 2011 exploring the increase in the use of technology in manufacturing settings and the roll-out of digital transformation. 

Over the last decade it has revolutionised multiple sectors and is now at the core of production advances and updates. 
Initially, the idea of moving an entire production process ‘online’ and using technology throughout was perceived as a daunting, time consuming and expensive task and in the early days, it was mostly the large-scale innovators who took the leap to reap the benefits of productivity, cost and quality improvements.

Exponential growth
With market-leaders implementing artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and software in their manufacturing processes and demonstrating the benefits to their business, digital transformation has grown exponentially in the last decade and is revolutionising methods of production across a myriad of sectors. 

Integrating software at each stage of a production line enables a range of benefits such as improved diagnostic capabilities, real-time data, reporting and the ability to predict upcoming issues.

The ability to log – and digest – data and information from a production line in a fixed way; rather than jotted notes on pieces of paper, or free-typed and logged where patterns may not be immediately spotted, gives managers insight into faults and quality control issues, but also information on profitability and productivity. 

Digital twinning – the concept of building a virtual version of a product or process – allows insight into the machinations, can predict outcomes and can even pre-empt any faults or failures.

While the perception can often be that technology, automation and software is expensive, return on investment can be swift. Statistics show the top benefits of digital transformation are improved operational efficiency (40%), faster time to market (36%) and the ability to meet customer expectations (35%).

In addition, the reduction in downtime, rework and products waiting to be reviewed can be massively reduced, if not eliminated, through the implementation of automation and use of software.

Skilled job growth
The last 40 years has seen manufacturing being transferred to emerging economies where wages tend to be a lot lower than in the more advanced markets. However, with the upsurge in the use of technology in the last decade, the view is that more repetitive, unskilled tasks will be undertaken by robotics and automated, while more technical and skilled jobs will be created in order to operate automated processes or assess data produced. 

A totally unpredicted benefit of the shift towards digitisation is how this would assist manufacturers when it came to the impact of Covid-19. Having remote access to reporting, data and production outcomes enabled huge numbers of staff to work from home, while maintaining all functions of their role. 

Quality control could be reviewed, reports produced for health and safety, finance, external accreditations such as ISO 14001 and annual reports for the board could all be created and presented remotely thanks to digitisation which minimised the impact on business’ bottom lines while allowing a large proportion of staff to work remotely; keeping them safe and reducing the number of staff on-site, thus helping with social distancing for those who needed to be on-site.

The implementation of new technologies, as well as the digitisation of records, data, reporting and product logs can seem like a mammoth task, however working with a specialist partner who understands your business objectives, as well as potential pain points, can streamline the digitisation process and bring almost immediate results and benefits.

One FLAGS Software customer, a luxury vehicle manufacturer wanted real-time knowledge of any potential issues on the production line that would result in rework and potential delays to finished vehicles. Working as their strategic partner, FLAGS Software was able to create a digital twin of the vehicles in production and a digital shopfloor workbook for managers to log and gather data on faults, quality control issues and any third-party components that may be faulty.

This insight and data can then be used to produce board reports and provide insight into productivity and profitability. The software captures safety critical data that can be used for safety checks to ensure safety of the vehicle, compliance with government regulations and ensuring the product meets the brand’s high standards. Information for health and safety audits and accreditations such as ISO 9001 and 14001 can also be captured and processed, reducing the workload of those responsible for quality assurance and guaranteeing standardised logs.

Using software creates a smart factory that can ensure standards from suppliers throughout manufacturing to the end customer. Bringing all information together in one place gives the whole business a holistic overview and the insight into how elements can impact the business as a whole; whether positive or negative.

Nick Elkin is managing director of FLAGS Software.

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