Chief technology officer and co-founder at Plex Systems, focused on next-generation cloud solutions for the manufacturing enterprise.
When people think of Industry 4.0, there are actually dozens of different technologies that are in play — from AI and blockchain to 3D printing and beyond. While each can play a role in optimizing plant functions, selection, adoption and implementation take time, money and valuable resources that are already scarce. So how can CIOs and CTOs prioritize the technology needed to solve their most pressing business problems? This article will discuss how manufacturing leaders can align technology adoption to their business strategies and which technologies are poised to make an impact.
Set Up For Success
The purpose of introducing new technology to a business is to improve performance and lower costs. But before jumping in too fast, you must start with the goals you want to achieve and then plan backward, finding a technology that best supports improved manufacturing performance. Typically, people are more likely to adopt new technology if they can see how it helps them to achieve their goals and objectives, like cutting costs, boosting productivity and mitigating cybersecurity.
Achieving user adoption for new technology also requires communicating with stakeholders early and often. The impacts new technology will have on them need to be identified and communicated at the onset of implementation to ensure strategic alignment and get proper buy-in. Without stakeholder buy-in, the entire technology adoption process is likely to be halted, if not completely scratched.
Part of being a good leader — leading your team and your company — is to be aware of what’s coming down the pike. As a CTO or CIO, it’s your role to identify the critical players in tech and communicate which solutions could benefit your business. While many solutions and tools on the market may have a place in the factory at some level, it’s important to evaluate each new piece of technology in terms of your overall business strategy, organizational impact and how technology can address — and hopefully resolve — existing pain points. From cost and time savings to creating transformational change as a competitive differentiator, these are just three of the game-changing technologies for manufacturers today.
Getting A Boost From Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI) is often an enhancement technology, or a boosting technology, meaning it sits on top of another technology and provides additional value. When you break down the concept of AI, which can be described as the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent behavior, you get two components: automation and machine learning. First, automation is the concept of reliably repeating a process without human intervention. Machine learning, on the other hand, is computer algorithms that automatically learn through experience.
When applied to an industrial setting, the value of AI really shines. Take, for example, a plant floor system that records machine downtime. If you tracked every shift for five years, you would have thousands of spreadsheets full of data. Then one day you’re asked to look at the data to determine why downtime or micro-stoppages are occurring — what are your options? Hire a few interns to analyze the data — a.k.a. thousands of spreadsheets — by hand and try to spot any patterns? Not a chance if you want to get back reliable results. Instead, the combination of automation and machine learning can do the work of 10,000 interns, with the ability to plow through years of data at speeds unattainable by humans to better recognize patterns never before seen. From data analysis, machine monitoring and even real-time quality control checks, the impact AI has on manufacturing has only just begun.
Adding Value With 3D Printing
3D printing, or additive manufacturing as it’s known in the industry, has been around since the late 80s. But with recent technology breakthroughs, we can now print with all sorts of materials — not just plastic — including steel, polymers, wax, titanium and more. As a result, the option of 3D printing has led to a whole host of applications across multiple industries.
For manufacturers, rapid prototyping is a top benefit. First, with 3D printing, organizations can manufacture parts within hours, which speeds up the entire development and production process. Second, 3D printing is flexible. Thanks to today’s technology, 3D printers can create almost any shape. Third, 3D printing can give you a competitive advantage.
With faster speeds and low costs, businesses can improve and enhance a product much faster. Lastly, 3D printing is cost-effective, which is to some the most important benefit. You may think a new manufacturing method would demand some serious upfront investment, but with 3D printing that’s not necessarily true for all cases. While some industrial machines come with a hefty price tag, there are many industrial-quality printers that are affordable. Today, more companies are embracing this technology as the advantages presented above grow louder — and more desired.
Never Break The (Block) Chain
At its core, blockchain is a distributed digital ledger. It’s built on the concept of peer-to-peer (P2P) computing, a form of distributed computing, where interconnected nodes share resources without a centralized administrative system. Original P2P programs like Napster and BitTorrent allowed users to easily share expensive data (i.e., music, books). Now, let’s think about that in the context of the supply chain.
Blockchain has the potential to revolutionize today’s increasingly complex supply chain. From its decentralized nature, which makes it extremely difficult for one party to tamper with the data without others noticing, to its ability to foster quality control and trust, blockchain seeks to provide a secure, immutable, distributed ledger accessible by all members, giving you better traceability. As blockchain becomes more mainstream — evolving from hype to reality — more organizations will bear witness to the value it can add to today’s supply chain.
At the end of the day, technology initiatives are business strategy conversations. An approach that starts with business needs and addresses them with modern technology is not only a helpful transformation strategy but one that can give you the biggest competitive advantage.