Lucian Dold, General Manager for Product and Channel marketing within the EMEA Region at Omron Industrial Automation Europe, questions what Industry 4.0 truly means for manufacturers and their customers. With the change, apprehension can follow leading some manufacturers to question if Industry 4.0 is a hot topic, or just a lot of hot air. ‘The current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies’ is how Wikipedia has defined Industry 4.0.

There are a lot of companies talking about Industry 4.0 right now. But it is not a new topic. Omron has been working on manufacturing automation and data exchange for many years, both on our own and as part of working groups in Germany.

One of the main problems is that Industry 4.0 is a very broad definition and means something different to everyone involved. Is it sensor networks, big data or artificial intelligence? Although all these technologies are part of Industry 4.0, it is the results that are more important. What benefits does Industry 4.0 bring?

To that end, we can look at two approaches that make the benefits of Industry 4.0 clearer for machine makers and manufacturers. One is the concept of the “NEAR” Factory. The other is “i-Automation!”, or ‘innovative-Automation’ Omron’s own specific technology implementation for the “NEAR” Factory.

Integrating the New Factory concept - “NEAR” 

“NEAR” stands for Networked, Effective, Agile, and Responsible. For producers, having a “NEAR” factory means improved productivity in response to ever-changing market demands.

These days production needs to be more flexible to adapt to changing market demands. Manufacturers are making a shift from running their production lines at 100% capacity and then hoping to sell what they have made to a pull model where they only produce what the market needs.

In a networked factory, there is better connection between machines in a manufacturing line for improved control and efficiency. The data and even control of the line can also be managed from anywhere in the world. And the system can draw on other data, such as market forecasts, to efficiently manage production schedules.

An effective factory is one with a high Overall Equipment Efficiency (OEE). Even today, outside of the automotive industry which has a high OEE of 80% or more, many production lines still struggle to break 50% OEE due to line stoppages or other issues. Raising OEE by even just a single percent can deliver large gains to a company. Smart, interconnected systems can detect and monitor potential issues to keep production lines running longer and allow maintenance to be scheduled at an appropriate time to help increase efficiency.

Manufacturers also need more agile solutions, capable of changing production quickly without significant retooling to produce different variants or even different products to meet changing markets demands. These systems must also be able to adjust production to meet current market demands.

And finally, producers have a growing responsibility, whether it is an environmental one in terms of efficient use of raw materials, or a contractual one to deliver the right products, at the right time, and in the right quantity.

Omron’s “i-Automation!”

OMRON’s concept of “i-Automation!” enables the implementation for the “NEAR“ Factory concept, transforming the elements of Industry 4.0 into real benefits for machine makers. In a way, “i-Automation!” sums up the value provided by Omron’s solutions for improving manufacturing sites by focusing on three principles:

‘Integration, Intelligence and Interactive’.

Integration is about increasing the speed and precision of the production process through fine-tuned technology and control systems. Ensuring that all the machines in a production line can communicate with each other and operate seamlessly, helping to boost efficiency and keep the whole line running optimally.

Interactive addresses the challenge faced by many companies in finding and retaining skilled operators. That means machines need to be intuitive and easy to operate, even for less skilled operators. User interfaces need to be simple and intuitive to use. They need to present clear information about machine or system status, highlighting when a parameter is out of range or a process is not working efficiently, and ideally showing what needs to be done to correct it.

Machine intelligence, and more specifically artificial intelligence, is where a lot of the buzz about Industry 4.0 comes from. For a machine to be able to make smart decisions, it needs sensors to detect and monitor its operating environment and rules on how to respond to any changes. The more data there is, and the more processing performed, the ‘smarter’ the machine can be.

Smarter machines can help operators to work more effectively by monitoring the processes and flagging up any potential problems, allowing processes to be adjusted, maintenance scheduled or event for repairs to made before it fails completely. This helps to keep manufacturing lines running longer, with less downtime and higher productivity.

One-of-a-kind systems 

One big difference between manufacturing lines and other ‘connected’ applications, such as cars, is that each production line is unique. In the case of the connected car, when one intelligent car learns how to drive on a particular road that information can be shared via the cloud so that any other car can also drive along that same road. This is the approach that Tesla used for its handsfree driving system. All the cars provide data that helps develop a better system that can then be downloaded back into each individual vehicle.

In manufacturing, each production line is a unique system composed of many different pieces of machinery. Each machine may have multiple sensors all feeding data to a central control system or even into the cloud. The challenge is how to make sense of all that data. For example, detecting a fault in part of the line might help to get it fixed and back online quickly. But it would be even better if the system could detect that there was an issue developing and keep the line running until maintenance could be scheduled. For example, if the system detects that pressure is dropping in a feed line, it could increase the pressure within set limits to keep the process running while sending a warning that there was an issue. As the system learns more about the operating conditions, it could potentially even identify the issue. In the case of the broken feed line, it could learn the difference between a blockage and a leak, allowing the appropriate maintenance to be scheduled with an indication of the corrective action needed.

Providing this type of analysis and control requires highly advanced algorithms that can adapt to each individual line. More importantly, these algorithms also need to be installed locally on the machine to give the machines the ability to learn each process and determine optimal operating conditions, analyse patterns, control the system within the identified limits and provide appropriate warnings when the system is not operating at full efficiency.

Smart systems like Omron’s E5_D series temperature controllers are already bringing some of these benefits to production lines. For example, on a water-cooled extrusion moulding machine, increasing the speed often leads to temperature variations due to factors such as the material compound and cooling water. For a human operator, this means repeatedly making valve adjustments to stabilize the quality. The water-cooling output adjustment function of the E5_D controller automatically adjusts the system to minimize temperature variations, enabling higher production capacity while maintaining quality.

Success needs focus

When we think Industry 4.0, we need to consider everything from the cloud, sensors to AI algorithms - Industry 4.0 is not one aspect, it is the collaborative system of multiple elements. The fourth industrial revolution is in sight, only by adopting and integrating real-world solutions, such as Omron’s “i-Automation”, will manufacturers begin to understand and experience the benefits.