Manufacturers are being stress-tested on a scale not witnessed since the first industrial revolution. They face global disruption from a prevailing pandemic, regionalised geopolitical complexity, supply chain shortages and ever-changing customer demands.
Overcoming these challenges is not about a complete revolution – as was the solution to an increasing globalised mindset, and the need for mass-produced consumer goods, in the 19th century. But it will require a similar leap of faith in the ability of new technologies and processes to alleviate market pressure, increase efficiency and output, and deliver better value to customers.
According to Greg Moyle, head of energy and discrete industries, SAP UK industry 4.0 technologies, such as the cloud, the industrial internet of things and real-time mass data management and analysis, otherwise known as Big Data, will be at the very heart of how manufacturers successfully respond to today’s challenges. “They will deliver continuity and resilience against what the future might hold, and help them to thrive,” he says. “After all, manufacturers must not only navigate current market uncertainty, but they need to be sure that they can emerge ahead of their competitors with more agile, efficient, future-ready processes.”
Moyle points to four key strategies in cloud computing, smart factories, data managements and sustainability that can deliver returns for those prepared to take a leap of faith.
The cloud is the foundation of modern manufacturing
The cloud is an important starting point for those looking to embrace industry 4.0 technologies to transform their operations and remain resilient in the current business landscape. “Encouragingly, many have made the move to adopt this technology in some capacity, But research suggests that there remains concerns about legacy integrations and the performance of applications in the cloud,” Moyle adds. This indicates there may still be some hesitancy to go ‘all-in’ and it’s here that manufacturers could lose out.
“Cloud computing is not just the enabler of industry 4.0 but also wider digital transformation. It is the foundation in which most advanced technologies, such as the IoT and real-time data analytics, operate, and can be scaled up or down to manage shifting project workloads, react to demand and improve visibility across the business.
“In the context of the supply chain crisis, this can have a real positive impact. For instance, the shortage of cars has been a permanent fixture on the news agenda over the last two years, with long waiting times in production. For many original equipment manufacturers, the cloud has been a game-changing solution in maintaining levels of customer experience. It has facilitated greater end-to-end visibility of the supply chain, meaning faster and more accurate customer communications, as well as the capacity to forecast demand, plan in advance and improve the efficiency of the production line.”
Harnessing the Industrial Internet of Things for Smart Factories
At a time where the future of industry remains in flux, determined by the outcome of global events, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has a critical role to play in supporting manufacturers to be agile to change. Unlike the IoT which is commonly used as an umbrella term for connected consumer devices, like a smart watch, the IIoT uses connected machines, devices, and sensors in industrial applications such as robotics. These devices produce large volumes of data that when analysed, can improve efficiency, productivity, and visibility, both in manufacturing and along the supply chain.
To explore this further, the IIoT is pioneering a concept called smart factories. “While the concept of automation has been in use in manufacturing for decades with barcode scanners, cameras and digitised production equipment, those devices are rarely interconnected,” Moyle continues. “Instead, the people, assets and data management often operate in isolation and must be manually coordinated and integrated on an ongoing basis.
“Through the IIoT, manufacturers are able to build an interconnected factory by collecting disparate sets of useful data across the business and supply chain. This can then be stored and actioned to inform product development or quality control. In cases of global challenges such as the blockage of the Suez Canal in 2021 or the start of the conflict in Ukraine, the IIoT allows manufacturers to be proactive, as opposed to reactive, to crises. With the Suez Canal blockage, for instance, during the period of severe supply chain disruption – it was the IIoT that supported manufacturers with contingency planning, understanding where raw materials were and which suppliers had them, enabling them to mitigate against disruption.”
Smart data management accelerates business connectivity
Having large quantities of data at your fingertips is paramount in building agile operations, but it can easily go to waste without the ability to effectively manage and analyse it in real-time. This is where Big Data management, machine-learning and real-time analytics play an important role in supporting industry leaders to glean the best insights from their data and inform smart strategic choices.
“Typically, manufacturers will produce vast amounts of both structured data and unstructured data,” Moyle explains. “Structured data is the simplest to organise and search, and can include financial information and machine logs, like an Excel sheet – that can be easily categorised and doesn’t require intensive resources to manage. Unstructured data, on the other hand, is the volume of information produced by connected machines, and isn’t as easily captured. Today, manufacturers still use laborious manual processes at an exorbitant cost to read and analyse this data, but this is no longer necessary.
“During a crisis or business uncertainty, manufacturers need to move fast and make smart, accurate choices. Slow, costly data insights could be the difference between making the right or wrong choice. Through machine learning and real-time analytics platforms, manufacturers can accelerate connectivity across the business, collecting and analysing data at speed and scale. In practice, this means they can pivot faster to changes in trading conditions or identify and address issues before they reach the customer. This could be machines in need of repair, maintaining field equipment or adjusting their supplier based on the availability of chips or raw materials.”
Putting the planet at the heart of strategy
Innovative companies are now able to drive comprehensive sustainability agendas while boosting their bottom line and market share – but how are they doing this? Conscious that all stakeholders, from investors to end users, are asking companies to reduce their carbon footprints, forward-thinking enterprises are specifically targeting manufacturing processes to make sustainability improvements. “In fact, Industry 4.0 is specifically able to enable this by improving operating efficiency, optimising cost and eliminating sustainability issues right at the point of product design,” Moyle concludes. “By harnessing the power of automation, augmented reality, AI/Machine Learning and the IoT, Industry 4.0 can promise improved methods of production and enhanced business models. With Scope 3 emissions accounting for 80-90 per cent of your total emissions, this can be a game-changer for organisations with their eye on the environment.
“Ultimately, the manufacturing industry has experienced greater disruption and challenge in the last decade than the previous three combined. As before, manufacturers looking to resurface ahead of competitors need to be bold and take a leap of faith on embracing new technologies and processes. It’s here that they must recognise the role of industry 4.0 technologies, in the cloud, IIoT and Big Data with real-time analytics, in helping them to successfully navigate the ongoing supply chain crises and geo-political complexity, while maintaining business continuity and a level of service end-customers have come to expect.”