With a focus on automation and the intercommunication of plant & equipment (the Industrial Internet of Things, or IIOT for short), the Fourth Industrial Revolution has shaped the future of engineering and manufacturing over the past few years. Smart factories are now achieving what was once thought to be impossible, producing better quality products with much less manpower. But with innovation inevitably comes resistance and while the largest names in manufacturing have utilised 4IR practices with amazing results, can the same be said for SMEs?
Industry 4.0 - Modern Misconceptions:
There seems to be a common misconception that Industry 4.0 is an ‘all or nothing’ pursuit. This may come from its tie-ins with lean practices, which require complete dedication in order to be successful. While automation feeds directly into lean principles, which scrutinise any forms of waste - including wasted time and resources - lean is a much wider philosophy, with automation only enabling a percentage of overall waste elimination.
Nonetheless, this mindset has led many SMEs to falsely assume that 4IR is out of their reach from a financial standpoint. Whilst the upfront cost of a fully-automated, or ‘smart’, factory is inevitably high, the adoption of Industry 4.0 does not have to be an inclusive process. Instead, companies of any size can gradually introduce 4IR plant and software over an undetermined period, allowing them to work to their own timescales but enjoy the benefits from the outset.
It’s also understandable that many have been led to believe that the adoption of Industry 4.0 means less jobs - after all, if equipment is automated, then doesn’t this spell disaster for employment? Not necessarily. Although there has been a lot of scaremongering in the press, automated machines still require human assistance to perform correctly - the difference is that automation can be focused on the more cumbersome aspects of the production process, improving efficiency by leaving staff free to concentrate on other tasks.
Scalable Technology, Scalable Timeframes:
Companies of any size may benefit from a slow introduction of 4IR, but this is especially true of SMEs. Small to midsize businesses are exceptionally vulnerable to cash flow issues, which may make the process of finding capital to fund investment difficult. Much of 4IR technology is designed to reduce costs and provide a return on investment, meaning that effectively, phase one can fund phase two and so forth, provided that timelines are elongated enough to allow for tangible financial payoff. However, when you consider the company culture changes surrounding the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a gradual introduction may also make sense from more than just a financial standpoint.
It’s no secret that change of any kind can leave people feeling uneasy. However, the misconceptions surrounding automation and Industry 4.0 have brought about an increased sense of unease around its implementation. In order to successfully introduce 4IR technology from a personnel perspective, it’s crucial that staff are able to understand it doesn’t threaten their employment, but instead allows them to work more efficiently. This is best achieved by treating Industry 4.0 as a scalable practice, which may mean identifying and prioritising areas where 4IR would be most welcomed.
For instance, if paperwork is the bugbear of your workforce, then you may want to consider automating this aspect of your organisation first of all. Once your employees are able to spend more time on the shop floor as a result, it will hopefully appease any fears relating to 4IR, allowing your company to proceed to the next phase with internal buy-in from staff.
The 4IR Pick ‘N’ Mix:
It can be difficult for SMEs to know where to begin when it comes to implementing Industry 4.0. However, it’s important to remember that small steps towards a much larger end goal are more than acceptable. If you’d like to kickstart the process, then first make sure that you have a clear idea of your current budget and priorities, then plan accordingly. When it comes to making a physical investment, here are a few initial ideas to consider:
- ERP Systems: ERP systems provide you with a seamless platform through which you can conduct the day-to-day aspects of running your business. Offering reduced quote times, production errors and at-a-glance job scheduling, ERP systems are a great way for 4IR newcomers to see tangible business results from this new wave of technology. For five great reasons why you should consider using an ERP system, please click here.
- Small-Scale IIOT: By connecting just a small cross section of your plant, you will be able to identify the viability of creating a larger Industrial Internet of Things. IIOT also produces big data, which can be invaluable for making informed business decisions and identifying areas of improvement. For more information on big data and its uses, please click here.
- Business Intelligence Dashboards: Business intelligence dashboards are capable of assessing and displaying key business metrics. Having debuted in the 1990s, business intelligence (BI) is far from being novel, but the vast data sets harvested by connected plant have made these tools more valuable than ever before. Whilst ERP systems are far better suited to producing and assessing operational data, business intelligence dashboards can work in tandem to display the bigger picture needed to make executive-level decisions concerning business direction.
Small Steps - Big Goals:
It’s important to remember that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is here to stay, which means that no matter the size of your business, you will inevitably need to adopt these technologies when others become obsolete. Industry 4.0 is not something to be feared however; in fact, it’s resulting in more intelligent, efficient and ultimately competitive business practices for its users.
Nonetheless, you shouldn’t feel undue pressure to buy into 4IR before your business is ready. By starting small and building up, you can stay ahead of the curve at a pace that suits you - not the pressures of the industry at large.