Industry 4.0: 5 Real-World Examples of Digital Manufacturing in Action13 October 2022
[Image Credit: iStock/Traitov]
‘Industry 4.0’ – the two words sending ripples across the contemporary manufacturing sector. From the approach taken towards designing products, to the management of the production process, what it means to manufacture efficiently and effectively is undergoing an existential metamorphosis, all to the credit of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Coined by the World Economic Forum’s founder, Klaus Schwab, ‘Industry 4.0’ as a term positions the modern manufacturing sphere in relation to the three ‘revolutions’ preceding it. The First involved the replacement of hand-powered production with steam and water powered machines; the Second blossomed following electricity’s arrival and the introduction of railroad and telegraph networks; the Third was catalysed by the rise of digitisation and computer technologies, further refining the automation process.
Today, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has come with the creation of digital networks and strengthening compute power, enabling communication and data exchange between inconceivably large spreads of devices and technologies. Machines are now able to make independent judgements and intelligently execute consequent actions in their wake. Bringing together information and operation, the capacity of technologies to carry out powerful tasks, re-imagining those traditionally undertaken by humans, cracks open a realm of possibilities that are increasing exponentially.
It is invigorating to be swept along on the currents of a driving force for change. Across manufacturing spheres, this is being increasingly recognised: just recently, digital manufacturing innovation and acceleration movement Made Smarter received £6.1 million in funding from the UK government, supporting 2,500 North Western manufacturers and predicted to contribute a £176 million gross value to the region. Indeed, the central advantages offered by adopting digital manufacturing methods – increased efficiency, cost effectiveness, scalability, sustainability – have the power to be monumental.
However, at the same time, our positioning in these unchartered contexts gives the industry’s position an edge of somewhat daunting unknowability. This article aims to offer a brief guide to navigating this ever-changing terrain, through several quick overviews of its key components alongside five concrete instances of the difference digital manufacturing is making today. Beyond the uncertainty of rapid development, it’s never been more exciting to live in a digitally connected world.
Industry 4.0’s Key Ingredients
Though interconnectivity marks the pivot around which Industry 4.0 turns, a few individual technologies stand out as significant pieces of the equation. Companies seeking to integrate them into their operations frequently take them on in combination, making an understanding of their singular functions integral to grasping their power when brought together.
1. Internet of Things
From asking Amazon’s ‘Alexa’ to ‘turn on the lights’ on cold winter mornings, to security cameras you can watch from your phone, the Internet of Things has become firmly intertwined with our everyday life.
In simple terms, IoT is an enormous network of connected devices, capable of exchanging the information they collect through powerful and constantly active sensors. Each device emits information regarding their usage and environment, which can then be transferred to another device capable of benefiting from the information.
This continuous absorption of facts and figures results in the generation of vast and intricate data sets, often referred to as Big Data. From this perpetual and enormous bank of information – data collected for the sake of data, rather than for a pinpointed purpose – analysis can be performed on the information via machine learnt computational algorithms. This can then be collected by manufacturers, providing valuable business insights.
The Industrial Internet of Things employs this same model of data exchange and collection in manufacturing contexts, often promoting significant improvement in the efficiency of production. Machines can, for instance, warn manufacturers of impending malfunction, allowing swift repair where operators may otherwise have discovered the issue too late. In another example, a factory may store stock on a weighing scale capable of recognising the weight at which stock must be low – this data could then be transferred to the relevant technology responsible for ordering stock and trigger the necessary action.
Saving time and costs, whilst also facilitating the data and technology necessary for innovation, The Internet of Things is an invaluable tool, smoothing the operations of the present and preparing the industry for an ever brightening future.
2. Cloud Computing
As immaterial a term as ‘The Cloud’ seems, it is bound up in addressing issues that accompany material subject matter – namely, servers. Briefly, Cloud Computing provides customers with a platform on which to store and process typically expansive quantities of data. Where having on-premise servers bind their users to maintaining its physical infrastructure as well as independently managing its software, utilising Cloud Computing services stores the user’s data on remote servers, possible to access via the internet.
‘Cloud Computing’ as a solution was conceived of years before ‘Industry 4.0’ even existed. Though the term was first used by Google’s former CEO Eric Schmidt in 2006, many believe that its first glimmerings date back to the 1960s. However, the opportunity it extends to contain and process masses of information has been crucial in supporting Big Data, central to the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s growth.
Given the flexibility in the commercial and operating model, one particularly shining benefit of Cloud Computing services is its provision of scalability fitted to dealing with the manufacturing industry’s rapid growth. Companies are not burdened with the task of purchasing and maintaining escalating numbers of local servers, facilitating a total cost of ownership reduction. Instead, freedom to increase or decrease remote server usage as and when is necessary is made available to them. In Cloud Computing comes a service fit to support an ever-expanding industry, aiding in its journey to head beyond the clouds and shoot for the stars.
3. Additive Manufacturing
Additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing, is one of the most important developments not only in the manufacturing sphere, but also in the history of the world.
Additive manufacturing as a digital technology functions just as the name implies – through the process of ‘adding’ material. The object to be printed, conveyed by way of a Computer Aided Design (CAD) or a 3D object scanner, is constructed by the printer often through layer-by-layer distribution of material. This comes in contrast with subtractive manufacturing, the traditionally employed method of taking a pre-existing resource (e.g chopping down a tree) and ‘subtracting’ material until the desired object comes into being (e.g shaving the wood into a knife).
The most immediate negative attached to subtractive manufacturing is the sheer expanse of waste it brings about, taking an immense toll on the environment in turn. AM, alternatively, completely overrides the need to use any excess of material, from the printing process’ commencement right through to its completion. To make matters better still, many 3D printed materials are fully recyclable, giving rise to the possibility of forming a cyclical supply chain. Sustainability is integral to AM’s position as a manufacturing method fit to address our growing environmental crisis, which cannot, and should not, be ignored any longer.
Beyond this global incentive, a host of more immediate benefits branch from employing 3D printing methods. Production time is faster than ever before, some parts taking mere hours to form where other manufacturing processes can take up to weeks. As a consequence of this, parts can be created on-demand, preventing the need to waste space storing static objects on the off chance that they might be required. Saving time and space, cost-effectiveness appears as another welcome outcome.
The world is undeniably warming to 3D printing. A recent report from Strategic Market Research expects the global 3D printing market size to reach $77.83 billion by 2030.
More and more companies are seeking to step into this new and exciting production realm, whilst more still investigate possibilities for expanding and streamlining their pre-existing AM processes. Offering a complete and customisable end-to-end workflow solution for additive manufacturing operations, it is for this reason that software like AMFG’s is becoming increasingly essential, offering companies the opportunity to scale their approaches as the additive manufacturing industry continues to bloom.
4. Digital Twins
With the birth of digital twins, the minutiae involved in design and manufacturing processes have experienced revolutionary modes of refinement.
The term ‘digital twin’ describes a digital recreation of an entity that exists in the real world, whether that may be a product, a machine, a system or a process. Brought about by sensors linked up to relevant machines or devices, receiving and continuously communicating second-by-second information, the twin runs an online simulation accessible by the manufacturer. As exact a replication of the real object as its digital contexts can permit, efficiency is once more the primary advantage of this technology, providing invaluable up to date information that otherwise may have threatened to slip through the net.
Error recognition is a popular use-case to which a digital twin can be applied. With unmatched swiftness, a machine malfunction can be identified or even predicted. The issue can then be quickly located on the digital representation, through which the appropriate remedy can be administered to the real-life object. As manufacturers know well, the power of ripple effects should not be underestimated; by way of a digital twin, situations can be bypassed wherein problems go unnoticed, left to spiral into serious errors and hold up the production line.
Where the conventional MES market provided a sequential system of human-processed steps to record and control the physical manufacturing steps, manufacturers are now demanding that their workflow solutions are dynamic, connected and responsive to the real-world. Functionality such as machine integration allows AMFG to provide this digital twin solution giving customers real-time visibility on the physical production setup and automating the administrative digital steps to ensure the digital twin keeps pace and informs the physical reality.
5. Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR)
VR has made it big in recent news following the launch of Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘Metaverse’, its conception beginning in 2014 with Facebook’s (now Meta Platforms, Inc.) acquisition of the VR platform Oculus. However, whilst much of its coverage has focused around its consequences for interpersonal connection in the future, ‘virtual reality’ and its sibling ‘augmented reality’ hold the power to transform the manufacturing landscape, too.
Virtual Reality refers to a simulated experience which is completely distinct from the real world. Those delving into VR spaces often do so by equipping a VR headset, frequently coupled by two hand controllers to bring the individual’s hand-movements into the virtual world.
Augmented Reality, on the other hand, sits comfortably between Virtual Reality and plain old ‘Reality’, as we know it best. AR equipment functions to bring computerised content in contact with an individual’s real life experiences. Whilst widely used devices such as smartphones and tablets can run AR applications, appliances specifically designed to deliver AR functions continue to be developed, smart glasses being a successful example.
AR and VR have entered into the manufacturing sphere as methods of promoting efficiency, specifically by deepening operators’ understanding of their tasks. Hours spent leafing through instruction manuals or scrolling through documents, for instance, might be replaced by instant visualisations of relevant information on a pair of smart glasses, from data projection to the serial number of components. As this dimension of the digital manufacturing movement continues to tick upwards in popularity, it becomes progressively evident that Virtual and Augmented versions of our world can work not as replacements, but as enhancements to the Real Reality we call our home.
Digital Manufacturing in Action: 5 Case Studies
Now that a rough outline of Industry 4.0 and some of its main pillars has been laid on the table, let’s turn to a number of companies implementing these technologies towards specific ends.
1. Mars Inc. and Accenture’s ‘Digital Factory’
Mars Inc., multinational manufacturer of food and pet care products, as well as the brain behind the classic eponymous ‘Mars Bar’, is collaborating with information technology service and consultation provider Accenture. Their hope is to develop a ‘Digital Factory’ by plucking and combining multiple facets of the digital manufacturing industry, naming AI, Cloud and Digital Twin technologies amongst them.
In Mars’ example comes a demonstration of digital manufacturing’s applicability to very specific situations, one of the company’s key objectives being to counteract instances of over-filled packages. In this instance, the capacities unique to digital twinning deemed it a suitable way forward, prompting a trial run’s commencement. Generating a digital representation of its Illinois factory’s production line, operators were able to overlook the process and adjust the mechanics as was called for, significantly streamlining the stages necessary to resolve issues. Following the approach’s success, Accenture and Mars shook hands on the decision to implement the technology on a global scale, across the 400+ manufacturing facilities owned by the latter.
However, the duo’s vision inflates beyond this very particular use case. A new cloud platform is in the works, geared towards manufacturing data, application and AI from which next-generation developments in operations will be extracted. Sustainability and efficiency are written big amongst their goals in advancing the project. Great things lie ahead as Mars and Accenture start their 2 year journey towards the emerald city at the end of their yellow brick road.
2. Nikon Invests in Optisys and Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies Ltd.
Peering through a forward-thinking lens and pulling the future of manufacturing into focus, Japanese multinational optics corporation Nikon has recently invested in hybrid printer developers Optisys and Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies (HMT).
The decision forms one strand of Nikon’s ‘Vision 2030’development model, predicting the coming of a “megashift” in society by the end of the decade, “bringing people and machines closer together, and freeing creativity”. Aiming to unshackle the manufacturing industry from the restrictions of human shortcomings, introducing flexible and sophisticated machine-led systems rises to the top as a central focus of the movement.
Though Nikon is best known for its optic-related products, its AM involvements thus far have covered a broader spread of areas, particularly veering into the medical scene. Nikon Metrology’s 3D scanning software successfully qualified AM hip implants for patient-care provider Ortho Baltic in 2017. Nikon’s partnership with 3D Engineering Solutions in 2014, even further back, sparked a revolution in CT scanner technology, introducing the capacity to convert x-rays into 3D printable CAD files.
Nikon’s extended investment in 3D printing technology, coupled with their passionate and bright-eyed vision, reinforces the importance of AM within the digital manufacturing field with unique and exciting vigour.
3. The Smart Factory @ Wichita
Showcasing the newest digital manufacturing technologies, and powered by Net 0 emissions, The Smart Factory @ Wichita is a physical manifestation of Industry 4.0. They pride themselves on not only imagining, but being the future, not just “some theoretical, maybe-we-can-do-this-someday prototype”, but demonstrating that the real deal materially exists, right at the world’s fingertips.
With the Smart Factory Market expected to escalate to $140.9 billion by 2027, according to a report by MarketsandMarkets, The Smart Factory bestows a perfect face to the movement, an exhibition encouraging the curious and forward-thinking to dip their toes in and face the breadth of possibility open to them.
However, importantly, the factory is not just a supermarket for the next generation of manufacturing technologies, hollowly lacking actual production. Continuing the theme, its high-tech setup produces Smart Rover kits designed to encourage youth engagement in STEM, Aiming to educate children who may otherwise not have access to resources for learning, The Smart Factory aims to represent and shape the future of manufacturing at one and the same time.
4. Dassault Systèmes SE and CentreLine
Dassault Systèmes, a French software corporation recently labelled as a key industry player in IMARC Group’s 2022 report, continues its development of the ‘3DEXPERIENCE’ platform. A system of operations promising to enhance real world manufacturing flows by way of the virtual world’s tools, it boasts the ability to link up entire organisational ecosystems, pushing the dawn of digital manufacturing forward.
Exemplifying the system’s success, private corporation CenterLine has spoken positively about its implementation of Dassault Systèmes’ DELMIA Robotics on 3DEXPERIENCE. Specialising in supplying advanced automation processes and systems – manufacturing for manufacturers – the company notes a 90% reduction in tooling-related issues and time spent reworking machines. The triumph demonstrates just how deep into the industrial process digital manufacturing’s benefits can permeate.
They aren’t stopping there. Having just recently acquired digital field solutions company Diota, Dassault Systèmes intends to debut virtual twin experiences on the shop floor. AR maintains its status as a realm into which Dassault Systèmes proudly marches.
5. Tesla Inc., Humanoid Optimus Robot
A wave of robot assistants has flooded the manufacturing sphere over the past few years. Starship Technologies has released delivery bots, capable of braving city streets in their mission to deliver parcels. Dynamic Group Ltd. produced ‘cobots’ which, alternatively, work in collaboration with manual assembly processes in medical device manufacturing, challenging the conventional assumption that robotics must eradicate the need for human operators. Pushing this trend to the next level, Tesla recently unveiled a humanoid robot prototype at their AI day event, named Optimus.
Adopting the autopilot system featured in Tesla’s cars, Optimus’ usefulness could place it in a vast range of environments, from the home or the office, to the factory floor, working in car assembly plants side by side with human counterparts. Tapping into some of the advantages associated with AR and VR, the employment of a worker directly linked up with IoT has significant potential to enhance efficiency to even greater extents, though Optimus still has a long way to go before it can reach its functional peak.
Tied into and in direct conversation with growing networks of ‘things’, Optimus distinguishes itself as a machine which offers to connect with manufacturers not just as a ‘thing’ in its own right, but also as something of a ‘person’. Interestingly, Tesla’s robot exemplifies a drive to visually and functionally replicate ‘the human’, even though robots can perform as successfully (if not more so) when designed without human anatomy in mind.
In this inclination to create a machine with which a new form of ‘interpersonal relationship’ may be developed, perhaps the first glimmerings of industry 5.0’s ‘human-centric’ focus can be excitingly discovered.
Final Thoughts: Resisting an Image of Dystopia.
The mechanisation and digitisation of the manufacturing industry, from the design to the production and even to the delivery of goods, is a subject often met with hesitation by the populace at large.
Concerns have been voiced that VR will become a replacement for reality, that those placing technology at the centre of their operations will lose touch with the material world. Data security concerns and fears that individuality will be lost outside of digital platforms similarly emerge, alongside anxieties that workers will be replaced by robots, rendering an entire job market inaccessible.
Those who make sure to illuminate these dimensions of our contemporary position should not be swept under the rug. However, amidst the rapid pace of technological advancement surrounding us, its advantages must not be overshadowed.
We are still in new territory, and whilst this comes with unknowability, it also brings freedom. As many of this article’s examples have demonstrated, humanity still stands at the centre of digital manufacturing’s developments, and runs strongly throughout the intentions and actions of its most prominent contributors.
Industry 4.0 need not be condemned to the status of a vague and threatening force looming over us. Instead, let us maintain faith in its promise as an exciting movement impelling us to go further than ever before.
Enjoyed this? Check out our last article, ‘5 Exciting Examples of 3D Printing in the Footwear Industry’.
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