Industry 4.0: Digitising the shop floor

The rapid advances in Industry 4.0 technologies and the installation of fully integrated cyber-physical systems on the shop floor have enabled smart manufacturing to become a reality

Ganesh Natarajan July 04, 2018, 2018 Last Updated at 05:59 IST

One of the most powerful visuals I have seen of a fully automated shop floor with flexible manufacturing systems, robots and total flow manufacturing implemented is a dark screen with a small circle of light. One of the most intriguing visuals is a picture of a Japanese factory operating at full capacity in the night shift. The rapid advances in Industry 4.0 technologies and the installation of fully integrated cyber-physical systems on the shop floor have enabled smart manufacturing with minimal human intervention to become a reality in many factories worldwide and Indian firms are striving to catch up.

In the past six months and more, digitised shop floors have become the focus of attention and investment in many manufacturing firms with even boutique consulting and IoT firms like Kalzoom and Altizon struggling to cope with the escalating demand for audits, proof-of-concept programmes and full- scale implementation. Some cases of well-managed Industry 4.0 projects will bring the opportunities to light.

A leading manufacturer of auto-components in India has embarked on an ambitious agenda to improve throughput of their assembly line and plant by tracking overall equipment effectiveness automatically in real time and make measurement metrics available to shop floor planners for plant optimisation. The capture of significant shop floor events on a cloud platform and the resultant visibility of plant utilisation enables production scheduling decisions to be taken instantaneously. Within months, the firm has reported a 20 per cent improvement in plant utilisation and recovered the opex as well as training costs incurred.

A construction equipment manufacturing company in North America that has already automated its manufacturing lines, deployed PLCs (programmable logic controllers) and established predictive maintenance protocols was suffering unplanned downtime and low line throughput because of the inability to analyse the volumes of data emerging from the floor and make real time decisions. A comprehensive IoT solution with individual dashboards for all production planners and shop schedulers has enabled real time alerts and notifications with prescriptive analytics to be deployed. The company reports a 12 per cent improvement in line throughput enabled by data insights and real-time visibility onto assemble line performance. With IoT built on existing automation the real investment has been in creating actionable insights!

Another data and insights success story is that of a metals forging leader with investments in multiple SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems but the inability to connect various heterogenous machines resulting in mountains of data silos that have not been united. The design of a central data monitoring system that captures data flows and integrates for anytime anywhere analysis has enabled shop floor and ERP systems to be seamlessly connected and production monitoring and corrective action to be done real time.

The realised benefits of Industry 4.0 on the shop floor have been many and companies are reporting high double-digit percentage improvements — reduction in machine downtime, inventory holdings, cost of quality, maintenance costs and time to market, increases in forecasting accuracy and plant productivity and on a softer note, substantial increase in shop floor supervisor capabilities and morale. The quick wins obtained through improvement in operating efficiencies are now being expanded in many progressive factories through investigation of artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities to move from descriptive analysis to insight-based predictions and prescriptive transformations of the manufacturing process.

In simple terms, smart manufacturing and the use of the industrial internet to transform “Make in India” can be achieved and is being done by the early pioneers through a simple four phase implementation approach. The first phase should be a simple assessment of where you are — in data gathering and analysis, the maturity of the supplier eco-system and the connectedness of the machines on the shop floor and the shop floor itself with the overall enterprise resource planning process. This will involve doing a detailed capability analysis of machine inventory and associated hardware, and also PLCs, SCADA and all data collection devices. Having a documented process follows with data capture points through the process and current key performance indicators with baseline data will help in identifying shortfall areas. An understanding of the communications network with its current throughput and the effectiveness of inventory management, ERP and manufacturing execution systems will be the end of this phase.

The second phase involves collection of production and maintenance data and action optimisation through meaningful analytics, the third is more developing a data philosophy that uses real time data and timely analytics for decision-making at and beyond the factory floor. Finally, investing in organisational change and recruiting developing and retaining the right talent with a razor-sharp focus on the changing needs of B2B and B2C customers is a must for sustained success in an Industry 4.0 environment. Approaching these phases systematically will ease the Industry 4.0 journey.

Which brings us back to the picture at the beginning of this column and the obvious question — what was that little circle of light in a totally dark shop floor? The lone human in the factory, a security guard taking a round with a small battery torch, ensuring that all is well in the digital world of tomorrow. One wonders if this is what automation can do to human employment.

Originally Published in Business Standard on July 04, 2018


The author is founder and chairman of 5F World. He can be reached on