We are clearly on the verge of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, also termed Industry 4.0. Industrial automation, digitization, and optimization of manufacturing processes are coming to the fore, promising a considerable competitive advantage. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is becoming a strategic priority area for many businesses all over the world.
What started as a German governmental initiative to create smart manufacturing has transformed into a worldwide trend many companies aspire to embrace. My experience shows, however, that these companies are not focusing on small, systematic improvements but are looking into global changes and are ready to invest lavishly in the smart factories of the future. Is this advisable and is the game worth the candle?
Let’s dig deeper into smart manufacturing solutions that are now on the edge of innovation. Are these solutions reliable and long lasting? Are they sustainable and ready for broad adoption? Are they really more cost-effective than an ordinary human worker at a bench? This is probably going to surprise you, but the answer to all of these questions seems to be “no”—at least at present.
The reality is that the visionary “smart factory of the future” is too expensive for today’s companies. The cost of connecting a single machine is too high, while each workplace requires dozens of machines, and each worker has several workplaces. After multiplying all that, we get a sky-high sum, and it is only to ensure connectivity, not to mention regular maintenance and support.
Industrial robotics is also a doubtful panacea in terms of reliability and investment. Regardless of what the headlines say about the approaching industrial revolution, the truth is that a simple system consisting of a rolling mill and a laser cutter led by a human operator is affordable and functions for decades, while an innovative and smart industrial robot costs millions and dies in a few years.
Industrial production involves mechanics, electrics, electronics, and software. Each element adds complexity, and complexity reduces reliability. Reduced size and increased accuracy decrease resources. With an increase in the software share, the update frequency grows, though any change in operating modes is a stress for equipment.
Electromechanical machines serve for 30 years and are easy to maintain, while complex and innovative solutions are rather fragile. To improve their reliability, developers introduce additional control units, which increases complexity and negatively affects the operation speed. Again, the question arises: do we need a reconfigurable robot arm instead of an ordinary, simple machine if we are going to produce standard details in the next 10 years?
Nowadays, even reputable market leaders don’t want to pay for innovations that boost the cost of production to a prohibitive extent. Nevertheless, there are steps many companies can surely take, small cohesive steps that are consistent with their ability to embrace innovation while not compromising on reliability or the overall efficiency of their business.
I do not in any way claim that modern solutions for smart factories are useless. I mean that to build a smart factory, you don’t need to start from scratch. You’d be better off investigating where and how the latest technology fits into and adds value to your processes step by step. It is often more rational to improve performance by 5% almost immediately than vote for extensive and costly changes with postponed and uneven efficiency. Small improvements are more than affordable; they are easy to integrate and pay off quickly.
Look at Industry 4.0 objectively—it will help you extract the maximum benefit from industrial automation and, over time, turn reality into the smart and beautiful future to which we all aspire.