Demystifying the Manufacturing Crystal Ball

We’ve all heard about “Industry 4.0” and the promises an increased flow of data and better quality information will have on shaping a new manufacturing reality. But what does the Internet of Things and more connections really mean for the manufacturing business?

The year 2020 seems to be the magic year for the Internet of Things. According to Gartner, there will be nearly 26 billion devices connected by 2020 and ABI Research estimates that more than 30 billion devices will be wirelessly connected by 2020. One might conclude this will also be the year when “Industry 4.0” reaches its true potential.

We’ve all heard about “Industry 4.0” and the promises an increased flow of data and better quality information will have on shaping a new manufacturing reality. But what does the Internet of Things and more connections really mean for the manufacturing business, supply chains and global trade? And what still remains to be addressed in order for the next wave of industrial innovation to pick up steam?

New Technologies Usher in a New Era of Manufacturing

The global manufacturing supply chain has a lot of moving parts beyond factories and various modes of transportation and delivery. The machines and devices in factories, for one, and the advanced technology systems on those modes of transport, also need to be taken into consideration in the next wave of manufacturing. All of these components are constantly sending signals and updates, or as some may say, are “talking to each other.” For example, a sensor on a truck or a cargo ship can indicate when there is technical malfunction. The driver is immediately informed that service or maintenance is urgently needed and the same signal is also sent to destination port and the end customer, informing them that the delivery is going to be behind schedule.

At this point, the necessary steps can be taken in order to make up for this lost time. The manufacturer can choose to ship the goods or parts from another ship or truck within the supply chain. Or another option could be to identify a warehouse that has excess inventory sitting on the shelves and pull that inventory into the shipment for delivery. The point is, in the smart manufacturing supply chain, goods or parts can be expedited to eliminate delays by utilizing advanced sensor technology and devices.

Creating a Collaborative Network for Information Sharing

In theory, having these devices speaking to each other can make the manufacturing process a smooth running machine, as our example shows. But there are a few components that must first come together in order to make this example a true reality:

  1. All of the parties and gadgets in the manufacturing universe need to be connected. In order to do that, there needs to be some type of shared network that brings everything, and everyone, together and allows data to be delivered and exchanged with clarity and speed.
  2. The data must also be stored somewhere where it can be accessed in real time. It’s critical for everyone in the manufacturing value chain not only to see information, such as part shortages and delivery status, but to also make sense of it. The best option is for data to be housed in a shared, collaborative environment.
  3. The data and information has to be useable and actionable. This is where Big Data and analytics come into play. You not only have machine talking to machine, but decisions are being made between these machines, boats, trucks, etc. based on preconfigured analytics. And the data must be digestible by anyone sitting at any point in the value chain.

Then and Now — Considering the Way Forward

If you think about it, the Internet of Things and smart manufacturing movement is about facilitating more connections. There’s a clear parallel to the PC era in the 1980s and 1990s when more and more people had PCs and could be connected. But it wasn’t until a couple inflection points in the PC history happened that this technological movement became truly empowering.

First, Microsoft Windows was built and all of a sudden there was an easy way to access data, display, disseminate and put it to work. And then search engines came along and took these connections and devices, which already existed, and made it easier to collaborate and transmit data. Finally, and more recently, social media opened the door for networked sharing of information in real time. 

A similar transition will have to occur in the supply chain and business-to-business space. The frequency and intricacy of connections is undoubtedly growing, but the next steps will be to provide the network to serve as the glue and deliver a single, central informational hub to store and share all of the data generated along the way. This will become the Facebook or LinkedIn for the manufacturing supply chain and this will be the heart of the “Industry 4.0.”

Diane Palmquist is Vice President of Manufacturing Industry Solutions at GT Nexus. The company provides a cloud-based collaboration platform that leaders in nearly every sector rely on to automate hundreds of supply chain processes on a global scale, across entire trade communities. Diane’s area of interest is creating supply chain technology solutions for global manufacturers. To learn more about GT Nexus, visit: www.gtnexus.com.

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