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Uncertainty Dogs Industry 4.0, Even Among Smart Technology Users

The new frontier of smart technology for industry is proving to be as much of a challenge to define as it is to implement, with the UK's Industry 4.0 Summit & Expo providing some of the answers, while also posing several new questions…

Photo: In the driving seat: Businesses look to take control of move to Industry 4.0.
In the driving seat: Businesses look to take control of move to Industry 4.0.
Photo: In the driving seat: Businesses look to take control of move to Industry 4.0.
In the driving seat: Businesses look to take control of move to Industry 4.0.

While many European businesses are eager to get involved in the supposed smart-technology revolution, in practice, however, there is still much confusion as to precisely what the concept of Industry 4.0 actually entails. The Industry 4.0 Summit & Expo in Manchester, then, was the perfect opportunity for a host of companies to gather and discuss the new possibilities afforded by such smart technology.

One such company was IFM Electronic, a leading European automation enterprise founded in Germany in 1969. It was attending the expo primarily to promote its IO-Link system, described as: "a manufacturer-independent point-to-point communication system used to connect sensors and actuators to an automation system".

Explaining how the product was able to produce orders without human involvement, Jon Morris, the company's UK Marketing Manager, said: "What you get with IO-Link is more information from your sensors. That information is the Big Data that forms the basis of Industry 4.0. It can be used in general manufacturing, but here we're demonstrating its use in food production.

"For example, if a manufacturer makes something in a hopper, the level goes down and down and, when it gets to a certain point, they order more. With an IO-Link level sensor, rather than someone going over and looking into the hopper and deciding to order more, the sensor does it automatically. It will order the product without any human intervention."

According to Morris IFM had in fact been incorporating IO-Link sensors as standard for six years. Expanding upon the possibilities this opens up, he said: "Hopefully IFM is big enough that you will probably already have an IFM sensor on site, which means you probably have an IO-Link sensor, you're just doing nothing with it."

Addressing the uncertainty many still feel with regard to Industry 4.0, Tim Dodd, IFM's UK Product Sales Manager, said: "Over the past two or three years, there's been some progress but at shows like this we're still getting people coming up to us asking about how to start their journey. I would imagine there are senior executives sitting around the board table saying: 'We need to be Industry 4.0 ready. Engineering Manager, go out and bring in Industry 4.0' and those managers then come to us and say: 'What can you tell me about Industry 4.0.'"

Another major automation firm present at the expo was SMC Pneumatics (UK), a British subsidiary of Japanese company established in 1959. Unique to SMC is its wireless valve manifold, originally developed for factory automation in the automotive industry. Explaining its application, Marketing Manager Bob Hitner said: "It has a master wireless control unit, to which you can connect up to 127 slave cylinders, so you haven't got any hard-wiring between the two. It's perfect for robot applications where you can get wire or cable fatigue. There are no cables to be fatigued, so there are fewer maintenance problems, less downtime and more productivity. Nobody else has anything like it."

Much like IFM Electronic, SMC Pneumatics sees the buzz around Industry 4.0 as a natural evolution for the field rather than a radical revolution, with Hitner saying: "We don't really see the Industry 4.0 thing being anything other than smart technology and we've had smart components for many years. People just chose not to get the information out of them. When our customers ask: 'How do I start Industry 4.0?', the first thing I say is: 'You've got to look at what you've already got.' In most cases, they've already got stuff that they can extract data from.

Photo: IFM Electronics’ IO-Link system.
IFM Electronics' IO-Link system.
Photo: IFM Electronics’ IO-Link system.
IFM Electronics' IO-Link system.
Photo: Control technology from Brainboxes.
Control technology from Brainboxes.
Photo: Control technology from Brainboxes.
Control technology from Brainboxes.

"A couple of years ago, people started talking about smart machines and smart factories. In the US, they called it Connected Enterprise. In Germany, they called it Industry 4.0, with the country's government's then putting a lot of money behind promoting its industrial sector, which led to its term becoming the generally accepted one. For us, though, we just think of it as a continuation. We always promote the fact that our products are smart, that they can be used in smart machines and, therefore, in smart factories. It's just the next stage, really."

An awareness of this shortfall in understanding about smart technology and Industry 4.0, though, seems to persist in the UK. For his part, Jürgen Maier, CEO of industrial manufacturing giant Siemens UK, had instigated an industry-wide review, which subsequently identified the fact that the UK was lagging behind a number of other countries in terms of smart-technology productivity. This led to the formation of Made Smarter UK, a two-year £20 million pilot scheme intended to help small and medium-sized enterprises within the North West of England to embrace Industry 4.0.

According to Jude Holmes, Head of External Relations and Marketing for Made Smarter UK, this saw Siemens work closely with a number of SMEs and provide them with free specialist technology advice. Assessing the contribution this made and how it worked out in practice, she said: "We helped many companies develop a digital transformation strategy and also offered 50% match funding, which could be used against the purchase of software or hardware, whatever their business needs. They also had access to our intern placements programme, which saw us work with businesses that may have lacked in-house expertise."

Since the scheme launched in January this year, about 300 companies have applied to participate in the Made Smarter UK programme, with the scheme's team of advisers having already picked up on a number of recurrent themes as to how businesses perceive Industry 4.0. Expanding upon this, Holmes said: "Some of the advisers have been going into businesses and reporting that people are saying: 'Industry 4 doesn't mean anything to me. It's maybe too aspirational for us'. Then when they actually walk around their factory floor, they see pieces of equipment that are already Industry 4.0-compliant and the company in question just doesn't realise.

"The big challenge for us, then, is to cut through the jargon that surrounds Industry 4.0 and demonstrate that it's not necessarily about investing in huge pieces of expensive equipment. Instead, it's more about almost a step-change and a step-by-step process of improvement. For us, it's about demonstrating those benefits in terms of growth potential and competitiveness. For most companies, it's a journey they can't afford not to go on."

One company at the expo that seemed well ahead of the game with regard to Industry 4.0 was Brainboxes, a Liverpool-based firm that's been designing and manufacturing data and I/O connectivity products since 1984. The company, which has an office in the US, was in Manchester to promote its new BB-400 NeuronEdge Controller.

Maintaining that Industry 4.0 was far from a new concept, Emily Dixon, a Marketing Executive with the company, said: "For 35 years we connected things to things, stuff-to-stuff, machines-to-machines. Then it was machines-to-computers and, later, machines-to-the-internet. Now, it's machines-to-the-Cloud. If you want to start getting into it, though, it's really still all about connecting people-to-people, not just processes-to-processes – and that's something we've always done."

A family-run business, Brainboxes has changed tack slightly in recent times. Explaining its shift in priorities, Dixon said: "We've always made our own hardware, so we've tended to come at things from that angle. Four years ago, though, Luke Walsh took over as our Managing Director and his background is very much in software. What we're trying to do now, then, is bring IT software functionality and familiarity into an industrial environment, allowing users to develop and programme on Pi [a British-built computer designed with ease of programming in mind] and then deploy in the field without any of the usual headaches.

"Traditionally, the UK manufacturing sector has been quite conservative and reluctant to embrace change. When it comes to Industry 4.0, though, people here seem genuinely excited and very curious about just what can be done."

Photo: The Industry 4.0 Summit & Expo: Vive la smart technology revolution.
The Industry 4.0 Summit & Expo: Vive la smart technology revolution.
Photo: The Industry 4.0 Summit & Expo: Vive la smart technology revolution.
The Industry 4.0 Summit & Expo: Vive la smart technology revolution.

The 2019 Industry 4.0 Summit & Expo took place from 10-11 April at Manchester Central.

Catherine Jones, Special Correspondent, Manchester

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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