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Industry 4.0: challenges and opportunities

15 September, 2019

A key to the successful implementation of Industry 4.0 projects is accessing critical data that may be locked away in existing automation systems. But, as Jan Hemper, technical director of Gambica member InControl Systems, explains, accessing that data can provide opportunities for companies to leapfrog their rivals.

The key to the fourth industrial revolution lies in the connections between people, products and machines. Around the world, companies are striving to capture the benefits of the new wave of technological change. Amid the hype surrounding Industry 4.0, however, it is easy to lose sight of the things that make the latest industrial transformation different from its predecessors and the challenges that this presents.

Fundamentally, Industry 4.0 is underpinned by the idea of connecting digital and physical elements. This can be done by combining real objects, such as products or production machinery, and a collection of software and data, into a system that is entwined together throughout the lifecycle of the object. The value that Industry 4.0 brings is the increased capability to share, analyse and manipulate that data.

For established manufacturing organisations, the data-driven nature of Industry 4.0 is both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity arises because these organisations already have significant data assets to capitalise on. Most have been running computer-controlled machines and networked automation systems for decades. And their planning, scheduling and manufacturing execution systems are already software-based.

The challenge occurs because much of this this data is locked away. The systems architecture of most modern factories follows the ISA-95 standard, which defines a clear hierarchy of systems, from enterprise planning and resource management at the top, down to the sensors and actuators on individual machines at the bottom. With its carefully-defined interfaces and data flows, ISA-95 makes factory automation manageable, allowing companies to upgrade their systems selectively, or to replace equipment without unnecessary disruption to wider operations. In the Industry 4.0 world, however, those separations and safeguards can become a barrier. A smart algorithm might be able to uncover the hidden relationship between high temperatures in one process and problems in a downstream operation. But it can only do that if it has access to all of the relevant data.

There is a solution to the limitations of today’s industrial automation architectures, and it doesn’t require companies to abandon or rebuild their costly, long-established and mission-critical systems. Instead, they can now add a new layer to their infrastructure, in the form of a dedicated “industrial innovation platform”. Innovation platforms have been designed to bridge the gap between traditional enterprise IT (information technology) and OT (operational technology) systems, and the new world of Industry 4.0.

These platforms are designed to speak multiple languages. They can source data from almost anywhere – including companies’ CAD (computer-aided design) or PLM (product lifecycle management) packages, their ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems, and their shopfloor data networks. They do that using secure, standardised interfaces, that minimise integration costs and the risk of disruption.

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