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Time to act on Industry 4.0

Time to act on Industry 4.0

Nearly half of German manufacturing companies report that they are engaged with Industry 4.0 and more than 12% say they are already putting Industry 4.0 into practice. Ken Christie of EPLAN believes, therefore, that it's time for those UK companies that haven't already done so to sit up and take notice.

The fourth industrial revolution is how Industry 4.0 is popularly described. To some extent this description is justified, as Industry 4.0 has the potential to bring about changes that are every bit as wide ranging as those associated with previous industrial revolutions. Yet the description is not completely accurate. In reality, Industry 4.0 is more about evolution than revolution - it's about using existing technologies to achieve new ends.

Some of the enabling technologies for Industry 4.0 are admittedly relatively new. For example, the introduction of IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6) has made available a virtually limitless range of unique Internet addresses, so that it is now possible for items like sensors and actuators to have their own Internet address. In other words, it has made possible the Internet of Things (IoT).

Other key enabling factors are the continued growth in capabilities and reductions in price of microprocessors, which mean that intelligence can now be economically built into almost any device or system. This is often referred to as the emergence of cyber-physical systems (CPSs).

Working with these and other complementary technologies and technological developments, Industry 4.0 is set to change forever the way the manufacturing industry operates.

At present, for example, most products are made following a process that can be broken down into discrete stages. The customer identifies a requirement and contacts the manufacturer, the manufacturer designs a product to meet that need, the manufacturer's production department defines how the product should be made, orders are placed on suppliers for the raw materials needed, and eventually, the product is made and delivered to the customer.

Industry 4.0 has the potential to dramatically streamline this scenario. Ultimately, the customer will communicate requirements directly with the manufacturer's production systems, which will generate the data needed to make the product, order the necessary raw materials from suppliers, schedule manufacturing time, organise despatch of the finished products and, of course, take payment from the customer's bank account!
Such comprehensive horizontal integration is some way off for most companies, although the leading exponents of Industry 4.0 are already implementing some of the elements.

Vertical integration within the manufacturer's own plant is another crucial requirement for Industry 4.0. This will mean everything from pre-production planning right through the manufacturing stages to product despatch will be seen as a single process with all elements communicating directly with each other rather than via human intermediaries.

It's not difficult to see that the potential benefits of Industry 4.0 are enormous. Customers can have a wider choice of products with faster more dependable deliveries while the manufacturers can enjoy greatly increased flexibility with big reductions in labour costs. These big benefits are, however, matched by big challenges.

To talk about systems communicating directly and collaborating with each other is easy, but achieving this in practice is much more difficult, especially when the systems belong to different companies, as they inevitably must if meaningful horizontal integration is to be achieved.

The systems must share a common data format, but provisions must also be made to keep them secure, and to protect proprietary knowledge. Much work is currently going on to develop protocols - reference architectures - that meet all of these requirements economically and efficiently.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that all the results of this work are in the future. Right now EPLAN is supplying software products that support many of the key concepts of Industry 4.0. These are already helping users to increase their profitability and efficiency by enjoying today a worthwhile subset of the benefits that Industry 4.0 will ultimately offer.

All of the current EPLAN products have, in fact, been developed with one of the most important concepts of Industry 4.0 firmly in mind: factories should no longer be cost centres, but centres for generating profit. The right question for manufacturers to ask themselves is not "how can we cut our costs?" it's "how can we increase our profits?"

EPLAN software helps with this by, for example, simplifying design work and making it easy to split even complex designs into modules. These modules can be re-used in future designs, which reduces overall design time and costs while boosting flexibility by allowing "standard variants" to be developed easily and combined in numerous ways to meet specific customer requirements.

That's not all the software has to offer, however. It can aid users in complying with standards and regulations, and it can enforce design rules whether these are in-house requirements or requirements imposed by the end customer.

EPLAN even provides a data portal so that a company designing a control panel, for example, can instantly pull in data about the cables, trunking, pushbuttons, programmable controllers and other items used in the panel, even if these items all come from different suppliers. This data portal is a first step, but nonetheless a significant step, toward full horizontal integration.

A further benefit of using EPLAN software is that it makes the production of accurate and up-to-date documentation almost automatic. No longer is plant downtime prolonged because information is inaccurate, missing, or stored only in the head of someone who has left the company. With downtime costing as much as £20,000 a minute in the automotive industry, the value of this feature is easy to appreciate.

Much has been said and written about Industry 4.0, and the discussion must continue, but this should not be an excuse for inaction. We may only be at the dawn of Industry 4.0, but crucial benefits are already available, not least from the software products offered by EPLAN. And which manufacturer can afford to ignore benefits that include increased profitability, flexibility and customer satisfaction?

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