How smart are smart factories now?
There was a lot of talk about Industry 4.0 and smart factories in 2016. Since then the cost of
connectivity – through the efforts of the LoRa Alliance and developments in the cellular technology
NB-IoT, for example – and of sensors have fallen dramatically. But how much progress have we made
towards those goals? What have we learned and where are the roadblocks, asks Annie Turner
Let’s recap: Industry 4.0 describes the next era of industrialisation also known as the fourth Industrial Revolution. The first revolution was the beginning of mechanisation, powered by steam. The second was the transformation electricity brought to manufacturing and the third was the impact of IT and the start of automation. The fourth is envisioned as having more intelligence, connectivity and computing to create smart factories.
According to the author and speaker Bernard Marr, manufacturing must include the following to qualify as Industry 4.0:
have machines, devices, sensors and people connected and communicating;
the systems creating a virtual copy of the physical world, based on data from sensors to put information into context;
systems supporting humans in making decisions and solving problems, and especially with tasks that are too difficult or dangerous for people; and
the cyber-physical systems learn as they go along, allowing them to make simple decisions and become as autonomous as possible.
This is about operations, not the business case which has proved a stumbling block for many. Now, after many pilot schemes, only some of which were successful, expectations about what can be achieved and how quickly have become more realistic. Perhaps the biggest example of this realism is that the initial exuberance of GE – that most famous cheerleader for IoT and industrial digitisation – has worn off. The chief executive who launched GE Digital and declared the company’s aim of being a global top ten software developer by 2020 is gone. His successor acknowledges the importance of digitisation but has cut GE Digital’s budget by a quarter and shifted its focus to outcomes from specific applications – like asset tagging and managing field forces, which are hardly revolutionary – rather than grand designs, and more advanced uses such digital twins, which are here to stay, but making only steady progress – see graph opposite.
At the IoT TechExpo Global 2018 in mid-April in London, the consensus was companies are concentrating on how IoT can improve productivity and efficiency – evolving what they do already, rather than new business models and disruptive innovations. As Maciej Kranz, the vice president of Strategic Innovation at Cisco, says, “The real payoff from IoT comes down to automating existing processes that have a large labour or time component and streamlining the related process in one way or another.”
The big questions are how and when. Bernd Gross is the senior vice president for IoT and Cloud at Software AG, which last November teamed up with Siemens to promote Siemens’ MindSphere – a ‘cloud-based open Internet of Things (IoT) operating system for industries’. He says that there has been enough activity, “to identify certain patterns for successful […]