by John Patsavellas, Senior Lecturer, Cranfield University and expert panel member at the Institution of Engineering and Technology
2020 will see a further increase in the deployment of industrial digital technologies within UK manufacturing operations. These technologies can help manufacturers address some of their pain-points and create new gains for their customers, shareholders and workers.
Let’s face it, there’s been no shortage of excitement or promotion around so-called Industry 4.0 technologies such as the internet of things, robotics and automation, machine learning, 3D printing, artificial intelligence and augmented reality.
Cutting through all the jargon, we at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (the IET) would like to de-mystify some of the hype that beckons you to jump on the “digital bandwagon”, particularly if you are a small or medium-sized enterprise owner, manager or investor.
How will any of this improve the things that really matter?
At any one time, there are a myriad of issues facing SME manufacturers, many of them completely beyond your control. The challenges are many, varied and specific to each firm and its niche or sector. And it’s no secret that with challenges come opportunities too!
• Lack of visibility
• Skills and staff shortages
• Fulfilling customer orders
• Rising costs, such as energy
• Productivity improvements
• Product quality/consistency
• Machine downtime
• Power outages
• Legacy premises and old equipment not fit for purpose
• Retaining existing customers
• Getting paid on time
• Keeping a constant flow
• Prototyping costs and time
• Too much time spent firefighting
• Winning new orders
• Time to market taking too long
• Matching capacity to demand
• Limited funds for CAPEX
• Supply chain issues
Industry 4.0 technologies won’t necessarily solve any of these issues for you outright, but they will enable you to hone in on and quantify solutions to those things you can directly inspire, inform and influence. Harvesting, analysing and acting on the right data in real time offers increased speed and ability to address your pain points within the business and lies at the very heart of Industry 4.0.
Why should I even spend time thinking about all this?
Fundamentally, there are two reasons. First, reduced costs. Your operating costs should fall and your available time should rise as a result of using the right digital tools within your business.
Second, that you should stay ahead. It’s likely that many of your competitors, collaborators and clients may well be exploring or increasing their use of digital technologies within their businesses. Stay in the game, get yourself up to speed and avoid getting left behind by innovating before they do.
Where do I start?
Set your sights high but start with a grounded view. Don’t spend money on “digital”, if you haven’t already optimised your “physical”. The adage remains: get lean, then get digital. You need to find out what’s really happening within your manufacturing operation, or as we say, create a single version of the truth. To do this you will need to digitally connect your existing machines and information systems across the business.
This used to be the privilege of big businesses that could afford expensive bespoke programmes to connect their systems. The new digital tools bring such connectivity between systems such as ERP (enterprise resource planning) and CRM (customer relationship management) within the grasp of any SME.
To complete this task, it’s likely that you will need to add some simple and relatively inexpensive sensors to your existing machines (at the cost of a few pounds) and some new connecting protocols to your network.
To do this and make sense of the data generated, you may need to get help. Challenge your new apprentices or latest recruits to work with your champion on this. Failing that, try contacting your local further education college, university engineering department, equipment supplier or catapult centre.
Having gained a better understanding of the key factors at play within the business, you’ll be in a much better position to shine the spotlight on those parts of your operation which require deeper examination, and that will give you savings and increased flexibility. It’s vital to act on these insights of your operation and reap the rewards before moving forward to the more advanced steps where you will need to invest your hard-earned cash on further technology.
As anyone who has ever been through a new ERP or control system implementation knows, there is no point at all in digitising poor productivity (at best) or digitising chaos (at worst).
Creating new gains
Industry 4.0 is all about taking your existing human capital, shop floor equipment and back office systems and connecting these valuable assets, giving you a clearer and faster view of your world, and enabling your team to save money and time, invest your savings in the right technology at the right time with clear return on investment, and spend more time with your existing and new customers to grow your business.
John Patsavellas is a C-Suite manufacturing management and operations executive with 20 years’ experience, now Senior Lecturer at Cranfield University and expert panel member at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (The IET)