In a nutshell? It’s not about the machines! It’s about what ties them together.

The whole Industry 4.0 movement is drawing a lot of attention – and rightly so! Business leaders and policy makers alike underline the importance of the fourth industrial revolution to maintain some sort of a balance in a globally competing world. While for some businesses it makes perfect sense to compete on price alone, for others the focus on value (functionality, form factor, brand, reliability,…) allows them to compete by shifting the playing field away from just price.

In order to respond to evermore rapidly changing product requirements, shifting business models (i.e. selling products as a service), increasing reliability requirements, etc. technology is called to the rescue. Production needs to be more automated whilst regaining flexibility. Production runs are shortening. Product lifecycles are shortening. This creates a planning as well as a maintenance nightmare!

The first, and current focus of industry 4.0 has been to make machines more ‘intelligent’. Mechanical structures are fitted with sensors and many actions can be steered electronically. Increasingly, machines are able to perform a series of actions semi- or totally automatically. This is invading our private lives as well; think of self-driving cars (not quite yet) but also self-cooking devices (i.e. just toss the ingredients in a Thermomix, point it at the right recipe – connected to the internet – and it’ll prepare your meal). We’ve come a long way!

The addition of sensors and introduction of IoT (Internet Of Things) and M2M (machine-to-machine) technologies now allows centralised systems to gather all the information from these machines. And that’s where the real value lies! Industry 4.0 is about connecting things, much more than it is about making individual equipment more performant. A sportsteam also only gets slightly better by improving individual players’ performance. It’s when they train together that real value gets created.

Today, the technological foundations exist to create businesses that create like an organism. Just like all the parts of our body perform their tasks individually, it’s the internal and external interactions that make us perform. For airplane fleets for instance, this means end-to-end planning (not just for current capacity requirements but also for future and taking into account maintenance requirements, delays, etc.). Co-ordinating the fleet to minimise ramp time and maximise airtime (that’s an airline’s productive time) requires knowing not only about each flight but also about up- and downstream flights (it’s a hub and spoke business). Those flights may be internal but they may also be operated by third parties. Therefore, external collaboration and data exchange is required. Individual flights get increasingly ‘smarter’ – flight routes and speeds are optimised to minimise fuel consumption. This introduced variability which has to be compensated at airports, etc. One sees that with growing ‘intelligence’ comes growing complexity. 

Industry 4.0 is not about machines, it is about data. Or better, it is about information. Data generated by the equipment and other internal (planning, sales, finance,…) and external (suppliers, clients, weather, stock market,…) needs to be centralised in order for every system to turn it into information. What may be information for a PPS (Production Planning System) may not be information for another system, etc. 

One of the new focus areas is the optimisation of maintenance. Better information should make condition based or predictive maintenance possible. Whereas the intro of sensors has rendered the diagnostics of equipment ever better, most predictive maintenance efforts have focused on finding ‘rules’ and fixed ‘algorithms’ for making predictions about equipment’s need for maintenance. With increased flexibility being one of the key advantages of Industry 4.0, one easily understands that these approaches will not perform. Or rather, they may at one point in time only to miserably fail the next. What we need is an equally flexible and intelligent approach to predicting equipment health or failures. Once this level of sophistication is reached at all points in the chain (part/machine/production line/external collaboration/…) will we really strike Industry 4.0 gold.