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Industry 4.0 vs Manufacturing Reality: Mind The Gap!

Posted By Paul Tate, February 03, 2015 at 11:48 AM, in Category: Factories of the Future

Part of the problem in today’s world of highly active technology and social media is that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish the hype from what’s actually happening on the ground in manufacturing.

Buzzwords abound, and every vendor marketing manager on the planet now seems eager to jump on the latest industry bandwagon in a desperate effort to position their company’s offerings as “ahead of the game”.

Perhaps this has never been more so than with the current cacophony of coverage around connected, cyber-physical technologies in manufacturing – at both the plant floor and product levels. This net-enabled vision of the industrial future is known variously as Smart Manufacturing, the Industrial Internet of Things, or Industry 4.0 as the German government calls it.

These terms all refer in some way to how the Internet, mobile devices, sensors, cloud computing and big data analytics are poised to fundamentally change manufacturing. By using highly connected, embedded intelligent systems, products and machines will be able to exchange information autonomously, with processes and usage monitored and controlled online. The predicted result, apparently, will be hitherto unachievable operational efficiencies and production line agility, and the creation of potentially valuable new service opportunities.

But is this critically important message about the future of manufacturing actually getting through? What’s the reality about where we are now on the journey to Industry 4.0? And is a front-line awareness gap about what it all adds up to, hindering progress?

Take some recent interesting examples. 

Last July, the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) was positioned at the very tip of Gartner’s annual Emerging Technologies Hype Cycle curve – just behind Big Data, which is now heading into the inevitable “Trough of Disillusionment”, and just ahead of autonomous vehicles, which are well on their way towards reaching the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” this year.

However, for all the media pump and predictions, recent conversations between Manufacturing Leadership Council Global Vice President and Editorial Director David Brousell and a group of small and medium-sized enterprises in Ohio revealed that very few, if any, had actually heard of the term, the Internet of Things. Although on closer investigation, many said they were already using IP-enabled tools and technologies in their production environments, but without the associated IoT label.

Last October, Denver-based Ubisense also released its 2014 Smart Manufacturing Technologies Survey revealing that, despite all the hype about IoT and connected sensing devices over the last few years, still only 16% of respondents were actually relying on sensors in their production plants to measure process flows and provide objective decision-making data for management. That’s quite an adoption gap.

Last week, Germany’s Hannover Fair organization highlighted the awareness gap further with a new white paper called "How Far Are We: Industry 4.0", showing that despite the German government’s high-profile Industry 4.0 launch and extensive promotion over the last two years, still only 50% of even local German manufacturing companies say that Industry 4.0 is currently a topic of discussion within their enterprises.

What’s more, only four out of ten respondents say they have a clear idea about the changes that the transformation to Industry 4.0 is likely to bring to their working environments in the future.

One reason may lie in the fact that even fewer of all the manufacturing industry respondents to the German survey - just 27% - feel they are being sufficiently informed about what Industry 4.0 / Smart Manufacturing technologies and approaches are, or where they are likely to lead in the years to come.

As usual, the industry hype may be impressive, but in reality, there’s clearly still a lot more work, and education, to be done.

* Find out more about both the realities and the promise of Smart Manufacturing and Industry 4.0 in the latest February issue of the Manufacturing Leadership Journal, containing thought-leading articles from some of the world’s pioneers of the U.S Smart Manufacturing Coalition, Germany’s Industry 4.0 initiative, and the development of cyber-physical systems in manufacturing. 

Written by Paul Tate

Paul Tate is Research Director and Executive Editor with Frost & Sullivan's Manufacturing Leadership Council. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Board of Governors, the Council's annual Critical Issues Agenda, and the Manufacturing Leadership Research Panel. Follow us on Twitter: @MfgExecutive

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