(Adapted from the white paper, Data Digital Threads and Industry 4.0)
In 2007, German economist Klaus Schwab told an assembly of the World Economic Forum, which he founded, that the world was now entering a Fourth Industrial Revolution, one that “has the potential to raise global income levels and improve the quality of life for populations around the world.” Schwab was referring to a digital shake up that stands to turn the past several decades of growth in electronics and computer technology on its head with unprecedented levels of low-cost data storage, artificial intelligence, mobile computing, Software as a Service (SaaS) and Cloud-based computer systems. Behind everything? The internet of things (IoT), which promises to tie it all together with smart devices that will collect data, make decisions, and keep humans informed of potential problems.
Two of Schwab’s contemporaries, Siegfried Dais, deputy chairman of the board of management at Robert Bosch GmbH, and Henning Kagermann, president of the German Academy of Science and Engineering, first introduced the term Industrie 4.0 at the Hannover Fair in 2011. Two years later, their Working Group on Industry 4.0 presented recommendations2 to the German government on how the country’s manufacturing industry should leverage the internet of things and services to increase national competitiveness, and that smart factories using “universal direct networking of smart objects via the internet,” something that most refer to as the industrial internet of things, or IIoT, is the next phase of the Industrial Revolution.
Reinforced with digital threads
The journey from Industrial Revolution (Industry 3.0) to the digital transformation that is now Industry 4.0 or Smart Manufacturing is one paved with petabytes and petabytes of data. And it’s that data and the data sharing throughout the entire product lifecycle — leading to lower costs, quicker turnarounds, and improved part quality — that is fueling this industrial sea change known as “digital manufacturing”.
Companies such as Siemens and PTC are busy developing integrated software platforms that link all aspects of manufacturing. This “digital thread” aims to eliminate the silos of information that have long hampered data exchange between disparate software systems, and ties together each aspect of the manufacturing process from 3D CAD modeling and visualization tools to shop floor data collection systems.
These software systems do more than trade data. They eliminate much of the human intervention that goes with managing them. This is called automation (we’re not talking about robots here), and is a big part of, if not the key driver behind, digital manufacturing. This is exactly what Larry Lukis had in mind when he started the rapid manufacturing company Proto Labs in 1999 with a goal to produce injection-molded parts at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional methods.
Software, meet Hardware
In the absence of software systems at the time capable of automating manufacturing processes, Lukis and his team developed custom software and the proprietary manufacturing process to go with it. From that original idea, Proto Labs bypassed the company’s ERP-based scheduling system in favor of a homegrown system with digital manufacturing awareness. The closed-look system contributed to reduced manufacturing costs, increased throughput and gives management critical insight.
Manufacturing has become more complex at the same time that demands of cost to manufacturing improvements. While Smart Manufacturing is part of the solution to that challenge, it is also more than just every device getting connected. The acceleration of the innovation cycle is largely fueled by the driving force of software.
A new page for the playbook
Many other companies who adopted digital manufacturing processes are seeing similar cost-saving results as Proto Labs’ is. According to consulting firm CIMdata, digital manufacturing efforts can improve time-to-market by 30 percent, reduce process planning efforts and equipment costs by 40 percent, and increase overall production throughput by 15 percent. Still, the modifications to industrial infrastructure and processes can only be accomplished by embracing change and recognizing the need to reinvent business in order to stay globally competitive.
Adopting — and adapting
GE’s President and CEO Jeff Immelt point to the industrial Internet as a five-legged stool of hyper connectivity, brilliant machines, data democratization, predictive algorithms for improved analytics, and people hard at work using, all of this technology.
Because of GE’s commitment to these concepts, the company was the first to use 3D-printed components in jet engines, challenged the additive manufacturing “maker” community with redesigning one of its aircraft brackets, and routinely invites technology proposals from third-party companies for alternative manufacturing techniques. As proof of their commitment to IIoT, their Predix “operating system for the Industrial Internet” is open to almost anyone interested in developing secure software solutions for use in the industrial environment.
Shop floor on top
Steel, steam engines, assembly lines and integrated circuits — the pillars of previous revolutions could be seen, touched and smelled. Not so with the IIoT and the digital thread, a virtual confluence of data, software and sensors where various networks of technology work together to streamline existing design and manufacturing processes. However, the IIoT and Industry 4.0 share one big thing in common with earlier industrial revolutions—the promotion and betterment of that most basic modern institution: the factory. Without manufacturing, any country will flounder, and it’s up to those manufacturers to provide the best capabilities and most efficient processes in which companies can leverage to produce products.