The next industrial revolution has already begun. It will see machines, products and individual components all interacting with each other, optimising resources, energy consumption and human input.

Will the Smart Factory Live up to its Promises?

It is known as the ‘smart factory’ or alternatively ‘Industry 4.0.’ Quite simply, the fourth industrial revolution is now underway. What this actually means is a complete, efficient system in which the various elements from decision-making all the way through to product delivery are in constant communication with each other. While today’s ‘Industry 3.0’ means that machines and processes are automated, the 4.0 world will enable interaction of machines with machines, products with machines and even products with their individual components. The final product will be highly customised, communicating directly during the manufacturing process with the machines that are making it. This is what is being called a ‘Smart Product’. According to a recent study published by French federation Gimélec – the Electrical Equipment, Control-Command and Associated Services Industries Group – although the ‘smart’ factory will not be fully up and running before 2020, it promises to bring colossal benefits, enabling, among other things, manufacturing processes suited to an aging workforce and improving the overall efficiency of production units. However, there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of organisation and on the regulatory front.

The three essential features of a smart factory

The Gimélec study points out first of all that the technology building blocks for Industry 4.0 already exist. Cloud Computing is now helping to manage data processing more efficiently, Big Data can help to clear a path through the thickets of sent and received data, social networks enable strong emotional links to be forged with customers, and finally 3D printing is bringing production units closer to the end customer. Using these existing technologies in a ‘smart’ way will drive development of Industry 4.0. Industry will become more computerised and flexible, with strong emphasis on predictive capability. More specifically, the use of connected sensors will bring self-diagnostic capability to manufacturing, and thus, for example, enable remote control of an entire production process. At the same time, the various components being used will collect data, enabling a virtual reproduction of the whole or part of a machine for the purpose of process simulations and tests. Last but not least, the smart factory will also be an energy- and raw material-efficient factory due to an instantaneous communication and information exchange network which will coordinate requirements and availabilities.

Key priorities for making the transition a success

Germany is the true pioneer of the smart factory. A government-sponsored research report entitled ‘Recommendations for implementing the strategic initiative INDUSTRIE 4.0’, published in April this year, flags up the potential obstacles – regulatory, infrastructural and organisational – to the implementation of the Industry 4.0 system on a global scale. The report recommends a rethink of training in various fields, among them energy resource optimisation methodologies. On the regulatory front, the various partners will need to decide on general issues – structural principles, terminology, and so on, plus such details as data acquisition by sensors, sequence control systems, etc – and work on the necessary standardisation. In addition, says the report, legislation governing data exchange and data protection will be needed. On the infrastructure side, high-speed broadband, which enables exchange of very large volumes of data and ensures data integrity, will also be an essential pre-requisite. Last but not least, Industry 4.0 will have an impact on the working environment of tomorrow. Firms will have to design innovative, collaborative approaches to workplace organisation, and ensure that the entire workforce is able to pursue a process of life-long learning.

By Ruolin Yang