Smart Machines & Factories
Making sense of 4.0
Published:  25 October, 2016

Smart Machines & Factories takes a look at Industry 4.0 and what it means for machine builders.

'Industry 4.0' – for some years the term has been used mantra-like in discussions about the changes required in modern manufacturing processes and consumer habits. Digitisation and networking are the buzzwords on everyone's lips. Exhibitions such as the 2016 Hanover Fair focussed on 'Integrated Industry ' and tackling the challenges of Industry 4.0 in machine building with practical solutions.

Coming to terms with batch size 1

In essence, it is about producing goods with improved flexibility, speed and efficiency through the use of modern information and communication technologies. So the findings of a recent international survey appears rather baffling. Only around a half of the industry managers interviewed by a management consulting firm said they already used Industry 4.0 in their own enterprises or definitely planned to do so, either in the form of processes or products.

One reason for the hesitancy is probably the name itself. Following the three previous revolutions, the development of the steam engine, mass production on the conveyor belt and the computer, the term 'Fourth Industrial Revolution' would have us believe that the manufacturing world is changing overnight.

Neil Beaumont, sales manager at Lenze says that as an automation provider this is misleading and prefers to talk about an evolution: “Basically, Industry 4.0 is simply another phase in the increasing automation that has been underway for years. Automation being consistently advanced by digitisation, networking and the use of new communication systems. This progress allows automation providers to provide smart solutions that satisfy the changing demands of makers of machinery who in turn must fulfil the market needs.”

Increasing diversity – batch size 1

One of these demands is the growing individualisation of products. Beaumont explains that a car maker no longer simply offers a wide range of models, nowadays buyers can select a mix of options that is only produced once for their car: “The designers call it batch size 1. The trend is even more obvious in the food industry. A good example is the staple, milk. Years ago, supermarkets perhaps stocked two sizes of carton in full fat or long-life versions. Today customers can choose between four or more carton sizes. Milk is available in various grades from whole, semi-skimmed, skimmed and organic. And the range has been more recently joined by soya, goats, lactose free and flavoured. Do we drink more milk as a result? No. So we can say that batch sizes are getting smaller all the time, while the variance increases for the same quantity produced. Were consumers to be offered the choice of designing their own milk carton on the Internet, we would soon reach a batch size of one! There are many other examples of shrinking batch sizes on supermarket shelves.”

Beaumont highlights that greater variety does not result in more milk being sold. Milk producers and their suppliers of production machines must therefore think about how they are going to produce at reasonable cost. Setting up a different machine for each specification would be too expensive. So the machine builder has to design a machine that can do everything.

A single machine

One approach is machine modularisation according to Beaumont: “Modules are added or removed in the production process or quickly retooled via smart software. Different packaging sizes, materials, contents and much more can thus be processed, packed and palletised on a single machine. For the machine builder however, it is nothing short of a paradigm change. The first priority used to be perfecting a machine to manufacture products with the greatest possible efficiency to the highest possible standard. Now flexibility is demanded, but with the same high quality. Machine builders need partnership with automation experts more than ever before, particularly in view of the difficulties in recruiting and retaining skilled engineers.”

He explains that the deployment of advanced automatic technology, supported by the latest IT and communication technologies, is essential to modern production today: “Given a batch size approaching 1 for a product that sells for low cost with a production volume that can easily top 100,000 units a day, everything stands and falls on efficient and effective production planning. “Beaumont continues: “We can fairly assume that plant-based controlled production planning might be up to the job, but the complexity involved would be practically impossible to grasp. So logically speaking, it makes sense if, at a lower level, the product being manufactured can communicate with the machine and the machine with other machines involved in the process. System boundaries blur for machine builders between their own and downstream/upstream machines in the production process.”

All is for nothing without security

Digitisation and networking enable machine builders to monitor and maintain their machines even during operation on premises of their customers. However, as Beaumont points out, although technically feasible, this is not always welcomed by customers - after all, no-one is keen to share their production details with third parties: “The machine builder is provided with all relevant information about the customer's machine summarised in the cloud. In this way he can identify faults, like fluctuating power consumption and remedy them immediately without looking into the customer's production data.”

Beaumont added that because cloud solutions are vulnerable to attack by hackers, Lenze and a partner co-developed a predictive maintenance solution that he says is 100% secure by today's standards.

Many applications that go by the name Industry 4.0 today are the result of a technical progression in industrial processes. They are necessary changes prompted by the consumer mega trends of our times. Spear concludes that one aspect (not a technical one) of Industry 4.0 that is new and useful is that the term has brought about a change in awareness. Many machine builders have identified the means by which they can and must respond to the challenges of the market.

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