Industry 4.0, or in layman’s terms the digital transformation of industry, is becoming something of a buzzword across a range of sectors with businesses large and small alike. But although there is increasing awareness of the words themselves, how much is Industry 4.0 actually understood? Do people know what it is, what it does, what it means to them and perhaps most importantly, what they should be doing about it?
The Industry 4.0 summit 2018 was intended to address these concerns and advise, inform and inspire those in attendance. Taking place at the Manchester Central Convention Complex in Petersfield over two days last week, 28 February and the 1 March, the primary aim was to bring together delegates from a range of backgrounds and allow them to engage in debate and discussion and share their experiences.
The event has been nicknamed Industry 4.snow in our offices as it was unfortunately hit by the ‘beast from the east’, the Siberian blizzard that was unexpectedly dumped on Manchester during the opening day.
Double the number of attendees as were logged in 2017 had signed up for the 2018 summit, but sadly it appears treacherous travelling conditions prevented some from making it. Attendance levels were similar to last year’s event and despite the lower than expected numbers it was great to see some high profile forward thinking individuals and industry leaders engaging in lively discussion.
Questions and concerns
Many of the people we talked to throughout the two days saw themselves as being on a fact-finding mission for their respective organisations. We found that one of the commonest questions they were looking to answer was one of the most basic; ‘what IS Industry 4.0?’ with some appearing deeply concerned that they could be missing something very important.
On a similar note, some of the speakers voiced their concerns over whether ‘Industry 4.0’ was the correct term for this trend and whether alternative terminology could be more informative and helpful, perhaps helping reduce some of this confusion among potential users.
Other attendees had already considered their business in the context of Industry 4.0 and where improvements needed to be made. They were specifically looking to find out what the new advances could do for their businesses. The key problem areas they were hoping to tackle with Industry 4.0 technology included productivity, efficiency and labour supply issues.
There was always something going on at the summit with over 70 exhibition stands, keynote addresses from government and industry leaders as well as those implementing Industry 4.0 projects in the main conference hall, the Open Technology Forum hosting talks all day on both days, roundtable discussions every afternoon and an academia summit on day two.
Virtual Reality or VR headsets are nothing new, but a different take on their application took centre stage in Bosch Rexroth’s rally car simulator. Visitors to the stand could jump into a car, don the VR headset and experience everything a rally car driver would as specially designed sensors fed back to the supporting structure and moved and jolted the vehicle appropriately. A competition element definitely kept attention and visitor numbers high as the fastest time around the track across the two days won a prize. In a similar vein, Accenture were showing off a VR training task for managing emergencies in Nuclear Powerstations.
One of the most headline grabbing talks was that of Mostafa Nabawy of Manchester University. As part of the academia summit he presented an arachnophobic’s nightmare with his robotic spiders which can mimic the behaviour of their real world inspiration with extreme precision (jumping spiders no less, just to elevate your anxiety levels). The ultimate objective of this work is to create robotic bees which can fly independently, a way of pollinating multiple plants if the current, worrying die-off of the real bee population continues. If this can be achieved, the technology has clear applications for the agricultural industry.
We couldn’t engage with as many talks and discussions as we would have liked to, simply because, as noted earlier, there was so much going on, but we did get a feel for what was making an impact.
We participated in a great session hosted by Innovate UK, Rolls-Royce and Unilever. Two manufacturing challenges were presented and a number of data-analysis businesses pitched their proposals for using Industry 4.0 approaches to solve the issues. Tim Ensor, our Chief Commercial Officer helped facilitate one of the sessions with the Rolls-Royce team. Well done to Elements Tech for winning the Rolls-Royce challenge and to Arion AI to winning the Unilever challenge. Both solutions showed really practical application of data analytics to live industrial challenges.
We were particularly aware of digital twinning as a buzz word, the process by which a software model of a physical machine, object or service can be created and tested virtually in a computerised world. Applying various different scenarios to a design or idea will then give some indication of the weak areas and concerns, allowing them to be tackled at relatively little expense because this all happens before a real-world item or action is initiated. With advancements in technology digital twinning and all the associated benefits is expected to become more accessible to manufacturers at all levels.
Our own John Hannah was part of a lively discussion on ‘Innovation for Growth’ alongside two companies sharing their experiences of implementing Industry 4.0 advances. John introduced the concept of an Industry 4.0 ‘super-user’, with our example being Ocado. A super-user is the most extreme example of Industry 4.0 in action, as the company has the ability to spot an opportunity to use Industry 4.0 technology to disrupt their industry, in their case, creating a product that gives them a competitive advantage and could completely transform the way the sector operates. Discussion revolved around the way we as a manufacturer worked with companies seeking to introduce Industry 4.0 to their business.
Industry 4.0 and the Factories of the Future Expo was a fascinating exploration of the application of advanced technology to our working lives now and in the future. It was exciting to be part of it and we particularly enjoyed meeting new contacts and giving our thoughts on the emerging trends. It was great to see the open and enthusiastic sharing of knowledge at the event and we are confident that many of those who attended with questions were able to leave with answers, but there were still some issues that we identified through the course of the two days that we feel need to be considered and addressed.
The government is involved with and pushing for the introduction of Industry 4.0 technology and processes, but we strongly suspect that there is a need for businesses to have a stronger role in this and for big industry players to be more involved in bringing it into widespread use. We could see that, among those who understand the concept, there is growing enthusiasm for the new technology and the opportunities it presents, but that some companies could still feel overwhelmed by the potential changes. If Industry 4.0 is to thrive, perhaps every organisation should appoint a member of their staff as their tech lead, someone with a basic knowledge of new developments and an interest in where the technology is headed, so they can advise their colleagues on what they need to do and what they need to be aware of.
It’s always great to see some highly advanced projects being presented but for us this did come with a slight concern. Given some of the conversations we had, we have wondered if some of these more complex displays may have only heightened the anxiety of any already worried delegates. We feel it is important to note that these incredible advances really are cutting edge and are exhibitions of the highest possible application of what we can do now. In the main, they are ideals for the future and not something that is about to flood into the market at a moment’s notice.
We would stress that anxiety and confusion must be addressed as the lack of understanding of Industry 4.0 is not helpful to anyone. We need clarity and general acknowledgement that this is not something to be worried about, rather a new standard and an opportunity to do things better. It may not help that Industry 4.0 is being referred to as the fourth revolution, which sounds very sudden. Perhaps it is more helpful to consider it something less dramatic, an evolution rather than a revolution. This is a more accurate reflection of how it will work and how these advances will filter into our existing world.
At Tharsus, we feel privileged to sit at the heart of Industry 4.0 and work with ambitious companies who are exploring and taking advantage of the opportunities that Industry 4.0 technology provides. We helped Ocado achieve their ambition to revolutionise grocery fulfilment with market-leading efficiency, proprietary technology and innovation at its core and we are working with other companies to help them achieve similar goals. If you would like to know more about how Industry 4.0 can help your business, but you’re not sure where to start, give us a call to start exploring your options.