How to prepare for the digitization of manufacturing

Imagine the mid-18th century.

People going about their agrarian lifestyle completely unprepared for the Industrial Revolution that would change their way of life forever. In those days, the majority was completely unaware of the impending transformation the coming years would unveil: improved living standards, population growth, the rise of capitalism, urbanization, and more.

Today, we are in a similar situation.

We are on the cusp of another Industrial Revolution and most of us are ill-equipped to handle the forthcoming realities that will change the world, as we know it.

History repeats itself …again

There have been three past industrial revolutions and if there’s anything we can learn from their similarities, it’s that they were much bigger than the technological innovations that defined them. They altered the realities of life for the people of their time and generations after. 4th-industrial-revolution

The farmers of pre-first-industrial-revolution Europe transformed into factory workers, (or far more effective farmers) and with that professional shift came a massive human shift. Gone were the days of subsistence living as a default, from then on the people of the industrialized world would live with a sense of economic ambition. Similarly, with the advent of the second great industrial revolution when those same factories were made far more efficient and more scalable; thus changing lives, economies, and societies.

The third revolution took the suburban-living commuters employed largely by service companies and armed them with computers and mobile communications. As a result, lines between work and home began to blur and the 9-to-5 job morphed into an always-on and always-connected and mobile job.

Now, the fourth industrial revolution — Industry 4.0 — is upon us and we must be prepared, lest we remain the last farmer without a cotton gin or the last stock trader without a cell phone.

Each of previous industrial revolutions preceded societal transformation on an epic scale, with considerable economic, social, political and environmental implications. So too, each of the prior revolutions had innovation at their core. To understand the coming modernizations, we must understand the innovations that are shaping tomorrow.

Digitization via IoT and the “big data” tsunami

Like the innovation of the assembly line fueled industry by connecting separate tasks, the IoT is fueling manufacturing by connecting separate devices. In the 1800s, when manufacturing tasks could be interwoven into an interdependent array of tasks in the assembly line, manufacturing became more efficient.

Today, the IoT is interweaving asynchronous manufacturing equipment into an interdependent array of connected systems. These systems communicate with each other, monitor each other, self-optimize, and alert of any anomalies, thus minimizing downtime, reducing costs, and increasing outputs – in other words, making manufacturing more efficient.

For manufacturers to ensure they are not left behind in the coming revolution, they must now take action to connect their equipment through the IoT, connecting disparate systems to enable intelligent flow of data.

With the IoT serving as the method of innovation, Big Data serves as the catalyst, making it possible and increasing its effect. Thinking back to the first industrial revolution again, Morse’s innovation, the telegraph, acted to expedite the speed and increase the volume of information that is communicated.

Today, Big Data systems are expediting the speed and increasing the volume of information that is collected and analyzed.

To prepare for the coming revolution, manufacturers need systems that can automatically analyze big datasets into meaningful insights that can drive optimizations and efficiencies.

How to minimize the effect of defects

The third innovation that is contriving the coming revolution is akin to the “interchangeable parts” championed by Eli Whitney in the first revolution, which lessened the time required to repair devices.

Today, predictive maintenance (and in the near future, prescriptive maintenance) advancements are reducing both planned downtime (from preventative maintenance) and unplanned outages (from reactive maintenance). Predictive maintenance relies on information to forecast which equipment needs which service at what time.

By only performing the necessary service at the required time, resources are spared, critical systems run optimally and manufacturing becomes more efficient.

To prepare, manufacturers should invest now in setting benchmarks and baselines for their equipment and acquiring systems that will use this information to order maintenance.

An “In-DATA-strial” Revolution

Manufacturing 4.0 is centered on data. Preparing for the revolution means becoming data-minded, retrofitting equipment to collect and communicate data, acquiring big data analysis systems, and learning how to use that data to drive business decisions.  

Though the investment is minimal, the payout will be maximal.

Like history has taught us, being prepared and remaining flexible to the new realities brought on by the revolution will position us to leverage the economic, social, political, and environmental gains it brings.

The author is the general manager at Panoramic Power, a member of the Direct Energy group of companies, and a leading provider of device level energy management solutions. 

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