Industry 4.0 and Its Benefits: 2021 Edition

Mike Nager
Illustration: © IoT For All

I travel throughout North America to introduce the current state and likely short-term trajectory of advanced manufacturing technologies to educators and policymakers.

These are the people who will design, instruct, or financially support the next generation of skilled professionals. But the industry of manufacturing competes with many others for both mindshare and funding.

In my experience, most of the decision-making folks generally don’t have deep personal experience with manufacturing operations, so they rely on articles written in the general press for information. Unfortunately, for decades many articles about manufacturing have been negative, concentrating on job losses or lousy working conditions.

Up until very recently, it was an uphill battle to convince a school district to fund a manufacturing training program instead of an auto body or nursing one, for example.

To effectively communicate to the public, those in the industry have to do a better job explaining why a manufacturing program is essential for their community.

Industry 4.0

Luckily, there’s now a technological revolution in manufacturing, sometimes called Industry 4.0 or Smart Manufacturing, that has gained the general public’s attention. The science-fiction-like capability of the modern factory tends to get people excited.

In parallel, we have a powerful re-shoring momentum pushing for increased domestic manufacturing for many political and financial reasons, many of which are probably obvious to the reader who has already experienced nearly a year of COVID caused material shortages.

In these discussions, I, and maybe you will be considered the domain expert for manufacturing. Having an expert around is useful in answering those burning questions that they have about Industry 4.0. It’s kind of like when you discover someone is a medical doctor or attorney at a party — free advice!

What is the Benefit of Smart Manufacturing?

It’s an insightful question that can trip up those caught up in the technologies’ details, i.e., the manufacturing expert.

I know it did for me, and it took a while for me to come up with my particular viewpoint. The trouble is that if you are not careful, a dozen ‘benefits’ can be rattled off in no specific order that doesn’t sound much like a benefit to the layperson. They are more like the geek’s guide to cool technologies but sound more like a science project than something to invest real money.

The best short, single answer requires you to understand your audience’s perspective; from what viewpoint are they asking the question. They are either asking from the consumer or the general public’s side or the manufacturing company.

Consumer Perspective

The most significant benefit is that you will order single piece items customized to your specific needs without additional costs since automated machinery will produce them.

This is a clear benefit, not a feature or a technology. It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine how receiving a completely personalized product is better than a mass designed and produced one that we have been conditioned for 100 years to accept as “good enough.”

Manufacturer’s Perspective

The answer is twofold.

First, manufacturers who master the technology to provide customized products to customers will grab market share from slower competitors. One can’t help but make the analogy of how Amazon gained market share from slower rivals in the retail business. A similar situation is starting on the manufacturing side as well.

Second, the ability to create fast, flexible, and nimble production facilities means that you have a lot of data and information readily available. Besides providing the data needed to create a personalized product, that information establishes the groundwork for a predictive maintenance program.

For decades predictive maintenance has been an elusive goal, often discussed in sales and marketing presentations but rarely existing in reality. Predictive maintenance is sought after because it will significantly lessen manufacturing costs by reducing machine downtime (caused by equipment failure), which is extremely expensive.

And it will reduce cost by eliminating the preventative maintenance programs that have been designed over the years to prevent unplanned machine downtime. While generally effective, preventative maintenance is also very costly. Industry 4.0 includes the concepts of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and smart equipment that can determine its health to make predictive maintenance a reality.

Money saved in maintenance programs drop directly to the bottom line, so you can bet they will be implemented fast, even by the “suits” in the corner office that don’t understand the technology. And saving a ton of money is a clear and obvious benefit (and not merely a geeky feature).

So in my mind, those are the answers we should promote to laypeople needing to understand what the big deal about Smart Manufacturing is all about. It allows them to understand the importance of Industry 4.0 from both the consumer and manufacturer’s perspectives — and why investment is a wise decision.