Much of the discussion around Industry 4.0 centres on the application of the latest digital innovations in business and the creation of 'smart factories'. However, the actual examples and business use cases are as varied as the Industry 4.0 technologies themselves.
Industry 4.0 examples and use cases
Regardless of your size and sector, you can apply Industry 4.0 principles and the associated digital technologies across many areas of your business. For example:
- At the very least, you can go paperless. Use technology to digitise your business documents (such as forms and product specifications). This can help you save time and money and reduce the likelihood of keeping outdated or incorrect information.
- You can use the Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, such as shelf-fitted sensors and weighing devices to track and trace your assets and resources. For example, you can send inventory information to a warehouse management system to prevent understocking or overstocking. You can also use IoT systems to monitor the structural health of all sorts of objects, from production assets and machinery to entire buildings.
- You can embed sensors to factory machines and use them to collect data about the machines' conditions and cycle times. Advanced analytical tools can then process and analyse this data in real-time to identify the best production and maintenance scenarios, identify and correct problems (eg equipment failure) and optimise asset utilisation.
- When it comes to business intelligence, you can use machine learning models and data visualisation tools to help convert data into actionable business insights. For example, you can use big data to reduce risk in the delivery of raw materials - eg you can analyse weather patterns, identify potential problems, calculate the probability of delays, etc. You can use the findings to help you identify backup suppliers or develop contingency plans.
- You can embrace cloud computing to transform virtually every facet of the business. Whether by accessing software and services over the internet, or by using remote servers to store, process and share volumes of data, you can harness the power of the cloud to improve agility, scalability and flexibility across the different area of your business.
- You can use autonomous moving robots to help track, locate and move inventory, and improve your warehouse operations. Advanced robotics can help reduce order cycle time and improve productivity gains, or relieve the workers from monotonous or dangerous tasks.
- You can use artificial intelligence and associated innovations such as smart 'chatbots' to change how you interact with your customers.
- You can experiment with 3D printing to make prototypes quickly, fabricate complex parts and produce them on-demand, with fast turnaround, closer to the point of need. You can also use it to produce personalised products, tailored to your customer specifications.
- You can use automation to offer customisation of your products. Digital platforms can provide means for your customers to co-create, add custom features or adapt characteristics of your products before you send it into production. This can open up new sources of revenue or help you develop innovative capabilities in your business.
- You can use virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) systems to improve many areas of your business, including staff training, assembly processes, equipment maintenance, etc. For example, you can use AR glasses to deliver work instructions to the worker's field of view rather than them having to track down the instructions in a physical manual. You can project layouts, assembly guidelines or component’s serial numbers on real-world parts to facilitate faster, easier or safer work procedures.
Digital twin manufacturing
Digital twins are virtual models that allow for digital simulation, validation and optimisation of parts, products and processes. A digital twin is considered a key part of digital manufacturing and can be a major asset in driving automation value. When used effectively, it can significantly shorten time to market.
Evaluate the relevant technologies
There is no single prescribed path to digital transformation. You can't implement all the technologies at once. It is generally a good idea to start with a pilot project. A pilot will help you justify the cost and determine the benefits you can expect to achieve from a specific digital transformation initiative.
Read more about the business benefits of Industry 4.0.
Ultimately, you should choose to take forward those technologies that best suit the needs of your business and your industry. For best practice, see six tips for Industry 4.0 adoption.