The industrial revolution is no joke

ES Oct15 Pg38 & 39 JJS 1Q) What do you get if you cross the internet of things (IoT) with the manufacturing environment?
A) The next industrial revolution

By connecting everyday objects through networks and enabling them to send and receive data, the internet of things (IoT) is predicted to be a major driver for growth across multiple markets, including agriculture, automotive, healthcare, retail and leisure.

Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) with their finger on the pulse stand to create new revenue streams by developing an expansive range of new and innovative products. In order to compete in these potentially competitive markets, however, OEMs must ensure their manufacturing plants are ‘smart’ enough to meet the future needs of the end user.

Smart factories

Put simply, Industrie 4.0 is an initiative to revolutionise the manufacturing and engineering sector by combining the digital world and that of industrial production to create ‘smart’ manufacturing facilities. Some of the expected benefits include resource productivity and efficiencies, along with greater flexibility in creating highly personalised or configured products on a mass scale.

The term Industrie 4.0 originated with the high-tech strategy 2020 action plan passed by the German government in 2012. To remain a forerunner in this technological race, the German government is reportedly investing around €200 million, or £140 million, into research in this field and the rest of the world has been taking note.

For example, in the US a smart manufacturing leadership coalition (SMLC) has been formed, consisting of manufacturers, suppliers, technology firms, government agencies, universities and laboratories, all with the common goal of advancing Industrie 4.0. Not to be outdone, General Electric have since coined the term ‘the industrial internet’ to define how big data analytics and the IoT will produce new opportunities for industry.

Tailoring IoT

The concept of Industrie 4.0 and the IoT is similar; they both connect a variety of ‘things’ together via networks so they can talk and respond to one another proactively without human interaction. That said, there is a distinct difference in that IoT is largely focused on connecting everyday consumer objects so, for example, your alarm clock could trigger your shower thermostat, while the kettle and toaster prepare breakfast.

Industrie 4.0, however, is focused on the manufacturing process and combining IoT philosophy with industry to help create smart factories and, ultimately, smart products. With a growing trend towards personalisation, the ability to manufacture complex configure-to-order products on a mass scale in a cost efficient way is just one of the benefits smart factories should address. Products may even carry their DNA in a RFID tag, defining its unique specification and details relating to the end user and shipping location.

In addition, it’s expected that production equipment networked within smart factories will be able to self-diagnose and then repair, in advance of causing production down time. Imagine the efficiency benefits associated with a machine pre-ordering its own spare part in advance of the component failing.

Enabling technologies

Cyber-physical systems (CPS) are enabling technologies that help bring together the virtual world of computers and networks with physical processes in order to create an environment which allows ‘intelligent’ objects to talk and respond to one another. The IoT relies on having CPS available.

The use of CPS is often reported as the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution, hence the term Industrie 4.0. While the use of electronics and IT has been widespread within manufacturing since the 1960s, the technological advancements associated with the CPS are considered significant enough to mark the next chapter.

Language barrier

One of the most significant challenges faced is agreeing the ‘language’ machines will use to communicate and respond to one another. If, for example, the machine at the end of the production line responsible for quality control can’t read the specification encrypted during the assembly stage, then things are going to grind to a halt pretty quickly. Understanding and agreeing the benefits associated with Go, Rust, or any other programming language variations is going to require collaboration if we are to see CPS fully embraced.

Concerns can also arise if one party begins to dominate, as seen with Google in terms of its internet search market share. A handful of industry leaders are already believed to be well advanced in Industrie 4.0 and the fear therefore is that they could represent an unfair advantage, should a common language, dictated by them, come into play.

Security is also a major issue. A very real threat of cyberattacks and terrorism already exist today with a number of high profile cases exposing just how vulnerable our data and systems can be at times. In a truly integrated world, where machines talk to one another and then take actions based on these decisions, working out how to protect them against external instructions will certainly be high up on most OEMs’ agenda.

Due to the rapid pace of change in this exciting landscape Industrie 4.0 and IoT are set to revolutionise the manufacturing world as we know it today.