Cyber-physical future of manufacturing

MNCs in India and visionary Indian industrial houses are getting early success from their own implementation of Industry 4.0 practices

Industry 4.0 is evolving — in thought and action, in the world and India. From the early hype created by the industrial internet in the US, Germany and lead countries in the connected global economy, it was heartening to see in the recent conference in Delhi organised by the Department of Heavy Industry and CII, that multinational companies in India and visionary Indian industrial houses are getting early successes from their own implementation of Industry 4.0 practices and projects!A truly compelling industry keynote at the conference delivered by Dr. Jan Mrosik CEO, digital factory spanision of Siemens, brought the cyber-physical imperatives for competitive manufacturing to the limelight with the concept of digital twins — in product development, production management and performance optimisation. These terms have an uncanny resemblance to the value disciplines approach proposed by celebrated authors Wiersema and Treacy decades ago where they argued that organisations should compete by choosing product superiority, process excellence or customer delight. The difference is that for visionary manufacturers, digital twins can offer the tempting prospect of being excellent at all three!The most obvious digital twinning is in product design, where CAD/CAM systems now powered by high performance workstations make it possible for collaborative product development with customers to happen and potentially any product from an Adidas or Nike running shoe to a Maserati luxury car to be custom-built for a customer. Automating the design to engineering and production process is where most investments are going in and the transition is being made from automation on the shop floor to autonomous working of interconnected and inter-operable manufacturing execution systems. The digital twin in production simulates the performance of the line with choices of men and machine usage, layouts and throughput speeds to choose an optimum process without expensive trial and error. And finally, having a dynamic feedback loop from the product on the shop floor and in the field enables optimisation to happen during production, commissioning and use to constantly innovate on product and production process even while performance is tracked on a continuous basis.

The order of magnitude performance improvement that judiciously planned and meticulously executed cyber-physical systems can deliver depends on the balance achieved by any Industry 4.0 program on the four critical elements of customer focused business process reengineering, data gathering from all sources with advanced real-time analytics, deployment of technologies from the digital stack, including mixed reality, 3D printing and Internet of Things to fit the new process requirements, and a relentless focus on culture transformation to prepare the employees and value chain partners for ever-changing expectations and new opportunities for maximising value.

The margin of error is narrowing with competitive pulls and technology pushes enabling every stated and implicit need of a stakeholder to be met well before it is articulated. It used to be a cliché ten years ago to say that market leaders have the next three generations of product already developed and waiting to be launched when the customer is ready, but as the FANG quartet — Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google — are showing and Steve Jobs at Apple Computer and Elon Musk at Tesla have shown, success is in creating products and delivering them before customers even feel the need! Quite a departure for many of us in India who grew up waiting years for a telephone or a clunky car from two factories — one in Kolkata and one in Mumbai to be rolled off an ageing assembly line and delivered to us!There are two myths about digital transformation and Industry 4.0 that need to be laid to rest. The first is the question of the affordability of what may seem like new fads by the small and medium enterprises (SMEs), particularly the micro SMEs, who have enough on their plate with regulations and anaemic profitability and can ill afford to make capital investments in new hardware and software. One must argue here that with every nation in the developed world as well as fast transforming ones like China, Thailand, Vietnam and Mexico racing to modernise, the race cannot even be run, let alone won by ancient manufacturing firms flogging the dying horse of labour arbitrage. And with the new trend being to consume all infrastructure, platforms and software as a service, it is the judicious selection of cloud-hosted technologies that will enable large corporations as well as SME clusters to become truly world-class through Industry 4.0.The last and biggest concern area of course is the impact of fast growing technologies for automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning on the future of jobs in the manufacturing economy. In India we have nothing to worry really in the manufacturing sector if we are able to address squarely the challenge of making manufacturing contribute 25 per cent to GDP against the current 15 or 16 per cent. The distinction between blue- and white-collar jobs will naturally blur, but a plethora of new skills will emerge to plan, operate and manage the factories and supply chains of the future. As the inimitable Amitabh Kant said in the conclave, India’s manufacturing success is heavily dependent on our ability to capture not just domestic but world markets and it will be predictable quality, productivity and innovation that will get us there. Time for all to embrace Industry 4.0!

Originally Published in Business Standard on Tue, December 05 2017