Digitalization and innovation driving manufacturing’s future

Manufacturing is in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution—known as Industrie 4.0—and constant plant-floor changes are forcing companies to keep up with the rapid pace or risk getting lost and falling behind.

By Jonathan Wilkins January 6, 2019

The fourth industrial revolution, also called Industrie 4.0, is underway. It revolves around the rise of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and its ability to connect to seemingly everything, including innovations such as additive manufacturing, collaborative robots, artificial intelligence, and augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR). Industrial revolutions themselves are nothing new, but the pace at which they’re occurring is remarkable. The pace of change in ancient societies was on a scale of hundreds or thousands of years. In contrast, the industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries shortened the time span between successive revolutions to less than a hundred years. Depending on the source, the third industrial revolution lasted from 1980 to the Great Recession.

Despite innovations being more readily available than ever, countries are at different points on the journey to digitalize. There is a disparity between the rates of adoption of new technologies, awareness about what the fourth industrial revolution offers, and a cohesive leadership intended to drive change initiatives. This has resulted in a fragmented system, with the concept of industrial digitalization, or Industrie 4.0, referred to by various names including Society 5.0, Smart Industry, Manufacturing USA, and Made in China 2025.

While the names and concepts differ, the core principles are largely the same. Countries and companies are looking to enhance connectivity on the manufacturing floor to provide better, faster, and accurate data to make manufacturing operations safer and more productive.

Robots and Industrie 4.0

Manufacturing has turned to robots to handle many of the dirty, dull, and dangerous (“the three Ds”) tasks on the plant floor. While robots used to be confined to a fixed area—preferably behind a mesh cage—they are starting to work alongside humans in day-to-day operations. Collaborative robots are among the manufacturing innovations.

Nigel Smith, CEO of TM Robotics, has seen the challenges and the possibilities robots can bring in this new manufacturing environment.

“Robots have dominated automotive applications for a long time,” he said. “In the last few years, however, we’ve seen robots being used in increasingly varied sectors, from food and pharmaceutical to medical and plastics manufacturing.”

In addition to new applications, robots have become more reliable, Smith said, thanks to manufacturers shifting from hydraulics to electrical actuation. This, in turn, has allowed remote monitoring to help users gain additional insights to prevent potential mechanical or control issues.

Interfacing is another issue that has become much easier for manufacturers as information and connectivity have improved. Connecting a peripheral device such as a vision system to a robot can be done easily, which makes processes such as inspection and conveyor tracking a smoother process.

Even with these improvements, Smith pointed out there is still a big fundamental challenge manufacturers face at the beginning of the process.

“A challenge that continues to affect many businesses is choosing the right robot,” he said. “Because robots are becoming easier to use and maintain, cheaper, more efficient and easily deployable, there is a wider variety of options to choose from. This makes it even more important that engineers choose one with the right blend of features to match the needs of the application.”

Manufacturing’s future today

The manufacturing industry has progressed since the term Industrie 4.0 was introduced. Some of the technologies in operation today were just ideas or distant concepts. Robots were still in cages. Workers, while operating in a more interactive environment, didn’t have nearly as many choices as they do now with digitalization.

Digitalization has the potential to transform the manufacturing industry, but companies need to embrace new technology to benefit. This doesn’t necessarily mean replacing an entire system on the factory floor or switching to a fully automated plant. Making small changes can have a huge impact on operations, staff and productivity.

Jonathan Wilkins, marketing director, EU Automation. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


Keywords: Industrie 4.0, digitalization, robots

Digitalization is a key part of the fourth industrial revolution.

In this new manufacturing environment, the robot’s role has changed and become more collaborative.

Digitalization offers a great deal of potential, but companies have to recognize that and enact policies to realize it.

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Author Bio: Jonathan Wilkins is marketing director at EU Automation.