Steam, electricity, automation, the Internet. The manufacturing sector has evolved through the ages, and it continues to do so. But, are local companies ready for Industry 4.0?
Technology is transforming the world of industry as never before. Enter Industry 4.0, the steady combination of traditional manufacturing and industrial practices with the increasingly technological world we live in.
According to Deon Fourie, managing director of Shopware, the challenge with Industry 4.0 is that to automate something you have to understand it exceptionally well:
“And there has to be consistency in all the inputs to the process. That understanding is often what is lacking. It is important to have control of all the suppliers and the process.”
Everything that influences the manufacturing process has to be consistent, Fourie explains. “The raw material has to be stable and the conditions under which you manufacture your tooling have to be nearly perfect and always give the same result.”
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He says even the tooling needs to be consistent. “This in itself is a challenge as different tools are used in each process and require special setup. This requires someone with good judgemental skills to get the tool to perform in such a way that the result is a ‘first-off’ perfect product. The conditions for Industry 4.0-readiness don’t yet exist in Europe, and certainly not in South Africa.”
Lean and its role in Industry 4.0-readiness
Fourie explains that while Industry 4.0 is in its infancy, the concept behind Lean production principles is to be able to replicate economies of scale across multiple products. He explains it simply: “The term Jidoka is used to define this as ‘automation with a human touch’.”
“The concept of big data and automation coming together to give you the ability to have infinite flexibility, and to produce exactly what the customer wants, is actually the objective of Lean,” he says.
He says Jidoka relates to how far you can standardise processes and still separate human beings’ judgement calls from what can be automated. “The journey to Industry 4.0 is not going to happen overnight, but you can consider introducing Industry 4.0 by standardising – driving out ways to irrationality and variance, and reducing the job of the individual to the extent to which it becomes very simple for an average person to get good results.”
Prepare your business to be Industry 4.0-ready
Johann du Toit, director of the Simera Technology Group, says that it is important to recognise that product development plays an important part in building a sound economy. “By converting ideas to sellable products, you generate income,” he notes.
Du Toit says that one of the key challenges for smaller SMEs in the sector, and possibly for larger vertically-integrated manufacturing businesses, is going to be to understand and predict client needs. “In an era of disruption, clients might not even know what they want, or rather what they will want three years from now,” he adds.
To prepare your manufacturing business for the future, and to be ‘more Lean’ and Industry 4.0-ready, it’s advised to focus on improving your speed – from concept to sale.
How you could improve time to market
To accommodate variable client needs, Du Toit explains, some items might need to be manufactured on-site. “Think of 3D printed shoes, helmets, or skull and tibia, even art,” he says.
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In an era where data is becoming as precious as oil, you will need heightened digital skills in your company. Having workers who can handle data will help ensure you’re manufacturing in the right places: On-site where it’s sold, or off-site and then shipped to a retail location.
“Sure, we all believe we can do anything in Excel,” Du Toit says. “But at the rate we are gathering data during production, distribution and operations, we will need better skills to visualise and extract sensible value from this data.”
He advises investing in data analysts, either as partners or by upskilling your existing team to at least understand the data mining process. “Employees will need to understand data integration and analytics, and companies will need innovative partners to help them survive in this brave new world.”
To embrace Industry 4.0, consider Lean processes first. Manufacturers that leverage Lean, refined processes are in a better position to become smarter, use technology better and produce products more cost-effectively. The key to successful Industry 4.0 implementation, however, lies in how prepared your employees are to work in an increasingly interconnected factory.