Digitalization as a first step towards Industry 4.0

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Many of us in the technology and manufacturing industry have heard of the need to move towards the 4th Industrial revolution. There have also been many events, seminars and forums created to help various industries understand the benefits of industry 4.0’s smart manufacturing for the future. The Singapore government, spearheaded by EDB and MTI, have also carefully drawn up plans to help spur the industry towards a transformation that ensures our manufacturing industry is “future-ready” through the Industry Transformation Map (ITM), in which Industry 4.0 and the Smart Factory feature very prominently. Of course, there is also now some financial assistance set aside for the “adventurous-visionary” who are and willing to take the plunge towards this brave new world of driven by the Internet of Things (IoT), Robotics, and AI.

So, what’s next? During my opening speech at ATE’s SOLIDWORKS Innovation Day 2018, I touched briefly on this topic. I put myself in the shoes of business owners and business managers, especially the small medium-sized companies (SMEs), who are asking “how big is the market for IoT?”, or “How should I prepare for the future of manufacturing?”,  “Should I embrace or ignore this Industry 4.0?”, and “how does this affect the global market and my business?”. Many governments are convinced that this is the right thing for their economy, and so they have come up with their own programs and financial assistance to promote this transformation. Singapore, of course, will not be left behind!

With so much information out there, I’m assuming that the governments and think-tanks of the world have figured out the benefits or value of Industry 4.0. So I will not spend time here touching on the benefits. Instead, I’ll continue to put myself in the shoes of the SMEs’ CEOs, and try to address those that are asking “how do I get there?”.

If I understand it correctly, history tells us that the MNCs are the ones that will invest and make the first move. Afterall, they have the money and resources to take the first plunge. Then the SMEs follow suit. The question is, how long will it take for the whole industry to transform into a smart manufacturing industry? It’s good to have a few key MNCs drive the transformation, but will the whole sector benefit from it? Will the whole sector adopt it? Is the business benefit still significant if only part of the supply chain adopts this, and the rest take a wait-and-see approach?

Key Component of Industry 4.0

Before we attempt to answer the above questions, we need to ensure we’re starting from the right perspective. Let’s have a quick definition of what it is we’re transforming to. Industry 4.0 consists of the following 4 components:

Key Component of Industry 4.0
  1. Cyber-Physical Systems – typically thought of as robotics, but more than that.
  2. Internet of Things (IoT) or Industrial Internet of Things
  3. Cloud Computing
  4. Cognitive Computing (Artificial Intelligence)

These four capabilities enable the creation of a Smart Factory. But who runs the Smart Factory? How does everything work within that factory? What’s the Operating System of the factory? Traditionally we see factories work by having a set of processes and systems, which are controlled and managed by people. Well, the OS of the Smart Factory may be quite different. If you’re thinking of designing a Smart Factory, there are 4 design principles you need to consider:

  1. Interoperability – where machines, devices, sensors and people connect and communicate with each other via the Internet of Things
  2. Information Transparency – with sensors and systems installed in the Smart Factory, we should not be able to create a digital copy of what’s going on in the factory, and track what’s going on in the factory from a digital dashboard. Of course, this now means that we also need to aggregate raw sensor data into higher-value factory management information systems as well.
  3. Technical Assistance – this refers not only to robots assisting humans in the heavy lifting of physical work, but also to cyber-systems that are able to aggregate massive data from the factory and then present them comprehensively and visually to humans to make decisions or solve urgent issues quickly.
  4. Decentralized Decisions – With transparent information available to connected cyber-physical systems, these systems are now largely able to make decisions on their own and perform their tasks autonomously. Only in exception cases, or when the cyber-physical system encounters conflicting goals, are tasks delegated to a higher levels (humans).

Digitalize for Smart Manufacturing & 3D!

With these definitions and understanding in place, we can now begin to plan out our transformation roadmap. First, I hope it’s quite obvious by now that if we are to have a Smart Factory, everything (or almost everything) needs to be digitalized. How will the Smart Factory know which product or part to produce first? How will the robotic arm know where to drill at which 3D coordinates in space, if it cannot read the 3D model of the part it’s supposed to work on?

Second, the factory setup needs to be digital-ready as well. The factory lines, machine configurations, and operating parameters all need to be planned in a digital 3D environment in order for the Factory Information System to optimize space usage and productivity.

In short, if you’re planning to transform into a Smart Factory, or be Industry 4.0 ready, I’d urge you to start thinking about digitalization. It is the foundation and basis of the transformation roadmap. It is the first step towards achieving interoperability and information transparency.

In the next installment, I’ll look into how you can plan for Digitalization.

Wong Keat Tze, ATE
Executive Director

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