The technical term is Manufacturing 4.0 (M4.0) and anyone involved in the manufacturing sector should be fully aware of it if they intend to remain solvent and profitable.

The Washington, D.C.-based Manufacturing Leadership Council (MLC), a division of the National Association of Manufacturers, proved just how valuable this subset of Industry 4.0 really is earlier this year in a report entitled Factories of the Future.

“Manufacturing’s agility has sometimes been likened to that of the Titanic – slow, expensive to change, and disastrous when things go wrong,” the council states on its Web site.

“Factory infrastructure has historically required large investments with long capitalization periods. With so much at stake, why should companies start steering production towards the modern ‘factory of the future’ that capitalizes on cutting edge technology?”

The report notes that many companies have implemented digitization in the places “where it’s easiest and most logical to deploy or have plans to do so soon. That includes using automation processes like robotics, building and expanding networks on the factory floor, and using analytics and sensor networks to monitor machine performance.

Its authors also expressed concern about some of the survey results, including the fact upwards of one-third of respondents indicated their “plant floor leadership is not M4.0 ready and their “company isn’t taking any steps toward change.

In addition, only around 20% of respondents said their plant floor culture was “fully ready for M4.0 adoption or actively moving toward readiness.

“It’s been noted before in times of change that the ones who survive aren’t the strongest, but the ones that are most able to adapt. For many manufacturers, that adaptability could be ready to meet its first very real test, a challenge that will put a premium on striking the right balance in the human-to-machine relationship.”

Exactly how that relationship should evolve was the subject of a recent Hitachi America Ltd. virtual event entitled Data Driven: Industrial Digitalization for Everyone in Manufacturing.

Speakers included David Brousell, executive director of the MLC, Bob Hynes, director of the digital solutions business unit at Hitachi-owned JR Automation, Jose Marques, industry executive, manufacturing practice at Hitachi Vantara and Jesper Kildegaard Poulsen, business incubation lead at Hitachi Global Social Innovation Business.

Brousell posted a graph from the Factories of the Future survey, which he said indicates that many manufacturers are in the middle of their M4.0 journeys and that very few are at an advanced stage of maturity at this point in time.

There are a number of reasons why this is the case, he said: “First, transitioning to the digital model under any circumstances is hard work. We know from our research here at MLC that that work entails change across three dimensions:  How new technologies are introduced usually with legacy systems issues to be dealt with, how a company operates organizationally and how work is performed, and how much digital acumen leadership teams actually have.  

“Orchestrating change across the three dimensions takes a great deal of hard often soul-searching work, including cultural change in an organization. But companies are slowly maturing and progressing along their journeys, so let me put this question out to the panel and where you see where manufacturers are in terms of their digital maturity.”

He asked the speakers what it will take for manufacturers to “move up this curve and get to a more advanced stage of maturity.”

A key challenge, said Hynes, is the existence of legacy IT systems or IT systems or legacy manufacturing systems.

“To be honest It's quite painful when you have invested all that money, all that revenue and all that hard work and effort to make a change that may be required to move to digital. The key to starting is know where you're at. Do the best you can with what you've got. If you are looking at new types of automation or types of factory systems plan for that future, but taking that first step is certainly the most difficult.”

Marques added the biggest challenge is taking that “first cultural movement towards the data driven environment.

“There's also the need to eliminate data silos within the manufacturing environment and one of, the biggest challenges to make that happen is the integration part that needs to take place. In other words, finding the OT data sources as well as the IT data sources together to maximize the value of that data driven environment.

“Once companies overcome that challenge, it becomes much easier to gain value out of the resulting information out of the resulting analytics that take place.”

Poulsen pointed out that in order to implement a successful M4.0 initiative, anything that takes place must go far beyond it being simply a technological transition driven by the engineers.

“Remember, this is actually about digitizing your company so in order to really be successful, you need to make this a company-wide effort and determine what goals need to be achieved.

“If you set your North Star in terms of where you see yourself as a digital company, then the rest will follow.”

Hynes, meanwhile, said he personally doesn't advocate a one size fits all approach and that every company should have their own entry point. What is important, he said, is that when a firm starts their digital journey, they achieve some success early on in the implementation.

Paul Barker