Industry 4.0 – hype or real value?

At a recent press conference held locally to promote the EMO 2017 exhibition that takes place in Hannover, Germany in September 2017, I think the presenter was astounded that one of the attendees admitted that he had not heard of Industry 4.0. I am not surprised as the hype around this initiative stems from a research project in Europe after German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in conjunction with her ministers of industry and education, ordered a study about the manufacturing environment a few years ago.

Developing what could conceivably be the prototype for industry, ideally suited for implementing data-driven manufacturing within the industry, the German-led initiative is to bring leading industrial companies, top universities and technical institutes, and government bodies together to create the infrastructure and standards that facilitate implementing the Industrial IoT (Internet of Things) in Europe’s factories. And Europe believes that the rest of the world should be participating.

The Internet of Things is a collection of sensors gathering data on customer behaviour or equipment use, which, in turn, feeds into an analytics engine. The big idea is to employ machine learning to detect patterns and make predictions that come close to a clear endpoint.

I have come to learn that the technologies within Industry 4.0 include advanced robotics and artificial intelligence, sophisticated sensors, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, data capture and analytics, digital fabrication (including 3D printing), software-as-a-service and other new marketing models, smartphones and other mobile devices, platforms that use algorithms and the embedding of all these elements in an interoperable global value chain, shared by many companies from many countries.

They say that: “Collecting, analysing and sharing data represent the essence of data-driven manufacturing, because this kind of information leads to better decisions about production processes. Significant improvements in metal cutting productivity, quality and reliability will come from a data-driven fourth revolution in manufacturing technology. Data on hand that can be transformed into actionable information to avoid downtime and improve productivity through more detailed and timely monitoring.”

The last few international exhibitions that I have attended have had Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things (one cannot operate without the other) very visible in the publicity, and many exhibitors were eager to show how their products will help customers be part of the fourth industrial revolution.

However, on my recent trip to Europe to visit some high-end CNC metal shaping machine manufacturers I questioned the OEMs on this very subject. It was very interesting to note their varied opinions but for one point that they were all unanimous on and I sum it up in the next paragraph.

“The unchanging objective in metal cutting manufacturing is to further increase productivity, creating added value for the customer. That is the reason for continual new and further development of machine tools and for complementing them with optional extensions for added capability. We have been monitoring the machine workings for decades with industrial automation integrators such as motion controls and sensors.”

My real question is then whether Industry 4.0 is just another terminology for money-making initiative from Europe? After all the US have had MTConnect, which is essentially the same shop floor information system as Industry 4.0, since the initial version of the standard was introduced at IMTS 2008, where early adapters demonstrated “plug-and-play” connectivity among various pieces of equipment from multiple suppliers. Subsequently MTConnect has advanced rapidly. To quote a US editor: “MTConnect is real, proven and well-established – not a theory or a proposal or a vision.”