With the pandemic, the world has become more digital. A global expansion of digitalisation has taken place in less than a year, notably through the widespread adoption of remote working, online learning and e-commerce. Today, concepts that would have been unthinkable as part of everyday life just over a year ago have become normal and are now part of the new norm. As far as the manufacturing industry is concerned, digitalisation is no longer new. Actually, the tools associated with Industry 4.0 have been part of organisations' strategic plans for several years now. However, 7 out of 10 digital transformations fail.
What is the Industry 4.0
Also referred to as the 4th Industrial Revolution, its aim is to improve process efficiency and productivity through the implementation of three major complementary approaches: automation, digital information flow and advanced analytics.
Automation refers to the application of computerised or mechanical techniques with the aim of reducing the use of labour in any process. This is done using industrial manufacturing robots, collaborative robots, automatic guided vehicles (AGV) and autonomous mobile robots (AMR), automated warehouses, and various additive manufacturing techniques (example: 3D printing). The Karakuris systems are also considered automation systems although they are technologically simpler solutions that use gravity to mechanise physical tasks. Different types of automation are widely present in various manufacturing environments. In fact, it can be said that all semi-automatic lines have some form of automation, from automatic palletising to moving the product on conveyors.
The second critical component of a digitalisation process is related to the information flow. Automating the data collection on processes, equipment and manufacturing is key to ensuring a continuous flow of up-to-date information. To obtain this instantaneous information, it is necessary to install data collection sensors, to connect equipment (Internet of Things) and to use business applications along with virtual/augmented reality. Similarly, in the process industry, there are already many factories with data collection sensors at key points in the manufacturing process. These sensors transmit the most important information to the control rooms, such as the temperature or speed at which the product is being produced, and the decisions being made based on this information. On the other hand, augmented reality is also used for remote maintenance tasks, where the operator performing the tasks on site is wearing a set of glasses that allow him to communicate with a specialist technician at another location, showing him first-hand what is being done and receiving instructions by voice or images from the remote specialist.
The processing and analysis of the information collected digitally is crucial for a better understanding of the actual production status. Only then can conclusions and insights be drawn for informed decision-making. To this end, tools such as data mining, business intelligence reporting, simulation, digital twin, process mining, regression and factor analysis, and artificial intelligence are used. This is the advanced part of Industry 4.0 where, for example, based on the data collected by equipment’s sensors, wear and tear levels of a piece of equipment are estimated or correlations are made between the variations of the different process parameters and their impact on the final product.
Critical factors for the success or failure of these transformations
When analysing the list of technologies listed above, it quickly becomes evident that these only serve to support the business and thus, on their own, will not bring the desired impact. This requires process improvement prior to digitalisation so that wasteful automation is avoided. Next, the most suitable technology must be selected for each application and a good cost-benefit analysis must be carried out for each option. At last, establishing a robust change management process and empowering employees will be crucial for ensuring the maximum use of the new tools.
To achieve breakthrough performance, management and technology must work together while focusing on people and processes as the key to a successful digital transformation.