The arrival of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has been kicking off some lively debates around the world. While experts argue about the changes it'll bring, there's one thing they all tend to agree on – Industry 4.0 won't be about solving old problems. Rather, it'll usher in fresh and phenomenal ways of doing things, be it design, manufacturing, computing, or simply getting from one place to another.
At the Plastics and Rubber in Automotive conference held in Novi recently, industry experts mulled over the realities and possibilities of running an automotive business in Industry 4.0. A hot topic was the need to be proactive rather than reactive, to anticipate potential issues and create solutions before a problem arises.
Of course, in an environment where adapting to diverse customer needs is a requirement, this isn't exactly a cakewalk. On top of that is the challenge of minimizing turnaround times. After a point, automation is pretty much the only way for modern automotive businesses to make quick, reliable decisions and stay in the game.
The good news is that the solutions to these challenges are already available for automotive companies who embrace Industry 4.0. As Michelle Bockman, vice president of commercial development at HP Inc., puts it: "We're able to make things a lot quicker that you couldn't do before in traditional design or manufacturing."
Alongside automation and machine learning, tremendous data processing ability is one of the biggest perks of Industry 4.0. It is through data processing that companies can accurately predict and prevent problems.
But for a lot of automotive suppliers, gathering data from old equipment is a problem. Some of them, like Faurecia North America, are considering the use of sensors that can be mounted on legacy machines to allow them to collect data. Others are finding a middle path between new and old equipment.
Shaun Karn, president of Hi-Tech Mold & Engineering Inc. and Baxter Enterprises L.L.C., talked about how his companies are taking a two-pronged approach to data collection. Machines in their new facilities have inbuilt automation and data harvesting mechanisms, whereas in older facilities, the focus is only on critical issues at the moment.
For companies like Karn's that don't operate exclusively with Industry 4.0 gear, the best thing to do is to start somewhere. This is precisely what Mike McGrath, director of automotive and manufacturing at SAS Institute, had to say.
"You know what your pet projects are, I would just start with something. Find a project, start small, start collecting data," McGrath said.
Handling rubber in Industry 4.0:
For businesses manufacturing rubber products for automotive applications, the challenge lies not just in the equipment but in the manufactured parts themselves.
Flexible rubber or silicone components don't lend themselves easily to automated assembly or extraction. And introducing automation to the mix when it doesn't really improve anything, defeats the whole purpose of upgrading to an Industry 4.0 shop.
"You can fall in love with this idea of having an Industry 4.0 facility, but when you look back at it you have to ask yourself was the cost of the investment worth the benefit," says Jim Fitzgerald, C.E.O. of Flexan L.L.C. "You have to be practical about what you're trying to automate."
It is for this very reason that IRP Medical, the IRP Group's silicone manufacturing subsidiary, is now trying to see where automation fits into its manufacturing setup. Rey Obnamia, the company's vice president of technology, shared that they've started using robots and machine learning to make redundant tasks more efficient.
Getting everyone on board:
At the Novi conference, panelists were united in their view that if Industry 4.0 is to become a reality in the automotive industry, everyone involved has to be on board with it. This means getting the support of upper management, training employees in the right fashion, and of course getting the resources to make all this possible.
"All experience can be taught," said Matt Myrand, Faurecia North America's director of advanced manufacturing and supply chain. "It's the will and the desire and the drive to do it."
McGrath added that a lot of work has already been done to simplify the analytics tools and technologies of Industry 4.0. Analysts have already converted most of the "heavy coding" into "drag-and-drop" solutions, giving companies a hassle-free way to train their workforce.
The importance of using the existing experience within a company also came up during the discussion. In Karn's words: "You want to utilize the experts, the people within your facility, because a lot of what you're going to be measuring, they already know they're looking for."
While talking about the ground realities of training workers for Industry 4.0, the matter of security was bound to come up. And the panelists didn't deny the risks. But at the same time, they were in agreement that cybersecurity risks can easily be eliminated by taking some key precautions right from the start.
As Bockman put it: "The first thing to do is to train your staff on what to do and what not to do, very simple things."
Simple things like warning workers not to use the facility's equipment to charge their phones, for instance. To identify potential risks like this, companies can do an audit of their facilities before starting their training program. They can also use industrial firewalls to secure older equipment that is particularly vulnerable to cybersecurity threats.
So is it all worth it?
Upgrading to an Industry 4.0 shop isn't an altogether complicated exercise, but it does have a cost attached to it. Of course, the cost depends on what a company is looking to implement.
Karn explains it best: "If it's pure data collection, just pulling things out of the things you have doesn't have a lot of cost involved with it. When you start investing in additional software and newer equipment that's adaptive, we've found usually within less than a year we see a payback."
But even if they're looking at breaking even in less than a year, companies shouldn't get hasty about introducing automation, data harvesting and machine learning to their setups. Instead, they should focus on fixing their existing production systems first, because that is what will allow them to enjoy the benefits of Industry 4.0.