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August 1, 2016updated 28 Mar 2017 5:27pm

The next industrial revolution: Converged plant infrastructure hybrid agility

By John Oates

The Internet of Things is already bringing massive changes to manufacturing – in Germany they describe this new landscape as the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0.

There are two pressures behind this accelerating adoption of new technologies..

Firstly manufacturing itself is becoming more like digital industries. Product life-cycles are shrinking – the time between design and full production and distribution is getting ever shorter and products are increasingly personalised and differentiated for different markets.

Factories need to be able to tool up for new products more quickly – for some mobile phone manufacturers this means a return to more processes done by hand because making the tools and machines is itself too slow. If you are only making a specific handset for six months you cannot spend four months creating and testing automated tools for that handset and still make a profit.

Distribution networks likewise need to adapt at an ever faster rate. High value items with a limited shelf-life like mobile phones routinely ship by air in order to further shorten the supply chain.

Such ‘just-in-time’ production relies on precise data, linked with accurate demand predictions, to avoid lost sales or excess and redundant inventory.

The second pressure on manufacturing is that digital services and functions are increasingly available and being exploited by more and more vertical sectors. Ruggedised sensors and other devices are making in-roads into areas previously off-limits to delicate electronic equipment. Lower price points are also pushing sensors into new areas.

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There is still a role for technology in manufacturing to do what it has always done – to save  money by automating or speeding up processes or by reducing waste.

This leads to ever better connection between engineering, production and marketing and sales. Often these functions are provided by partners so systems need to work seamlessly across companies.

But increasingly the internet of things is also about making money – creating new opportunities for companies outside or beyond their traditional markets.

Smarter factories can do more than just follow centrally produced designs more quickly – they’re able to create their own designs and react almost instantly to local demand. Truly global supply chains mean production and sales no longer need to be on the same continent.

These systems connect to a cloud infrastructure to allow easy and timely analysis of the data they create in order to feedback further design improvements.

These intelligent machines within a plant or factory can talk to each other and to other digital services. Production lines which employ active maintenance for instance  – they don’t just show an alert when they need servicing but interact with procurement and timetabling systems to book an engineer.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s showcase client Wittenstein is a specialist in creating advanced, integrated production systems for clients like BMW.

It describes this process as ‘Cyber-Physical-Systems’ – a platform which gives staff a real-time view of all systems both in production and beyond. This gives them the data to make better decisions. It also makes it possible to finely tailor production schedules to allow far shorter production runs, smaller unit volumes and far more variegated designs.

But Wittenstein noted that this brave new world will not exist without people, but it will demand different roles for them.

However much technology is included there will still be ‘sensor gaps’ where systems do not reach. And however good the data there is still a need for human decision making. Intelligent machines and wider networks will give staff the best possible support.

Industry 4.0 will require staff to be more flexible as working methodologies change more rapidly than ever before.

But it also requires systems which can be just as flexible. This increasingly complex world requires team work – getting products to market today is almost impossible on your own. That team work requires intelligent systems which can reach down the supply chain and work just as well with your partners’ systems as with your own.

There’s more from HPE on the shape of future production here:

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