Friday, December 15, 2017

Is Industry 4.0 Really Smart?

This blog is a MESA Member Point of View.
By Mikes James, Chairman, MESA International Board of Directors

Let's discuss what the word ’smart’ really means in relation to today’s advanced world of manufacturing.
The tag ‘smart’ was first assigned to phones and now every man and his dog uses it to describe their product. But what does ‘smart’ really mean? How do manufacturers know that the hardware or software they are buying is actually smart? Does it really matter?

It turned out that these questions are harder to answer than they first appear. With this in mind, we put them to our panel of experts at MESA International. The Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association is a global organisation of manufacturers, software suppliers and system integrators. MESA’s Smart Manufacturing Committee, forgive the pun, is made up of more than 35 very smart manufacturing experts globally. As a member of this committee, I watched, listened and contributed as we produced our first whitepaper over a period of nine months (with a second coming out shortly).

We looked at the smartphone with its primary characteristics being: an IoT device; fixed hardware; updatable software; and wonderful functional flexibility through apps. Could we ever imagine something like this on the plant floor? Industry 4.0 calls for the individualisation of mass produced products, so creating a smart factory – and therefore smart products – is definitely necessary. Much like a smartphone, a factory could be changed overnight with new software. But is that enough? 

The answer is yes and no. Providing the physical process is made up of flexible, reprogrammable (on the fly) machines and robots, we could definitely get smart. The difference lies in the physical processes. Endless flexibility is not feasible and the investment in flexible manufacturing is high. So when designing the smart factory and the smart supply chain, we must define the limits of our expectations. Those expectations must challenge the limits of today’s smart technology – both software and machines must play together in a smart manufacturing world.

Photo source: world's dumbest by dickuhne (CC BY 2.0).
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