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7 Lessons Learned from Industry 4.0 Implementations

Feb. 28, 2023
Manufacturers with limited resources can benefit greatly from industrial connectivity technologies.

As more advanced and digitally connected machines continue to reshape the factory floor, it is important for you to invest in technologies that meet your needs and allow you to remain competitive. But if you are a manufacturer with limited resources, you want to get your investments right early on.

It is not always easy to identify how you might benefit from Industry 4.0-enabling technology such as data sensors, automation, robotics, and additive manufacturing. It’s even more imposing when you don’t have the expertise to assess your operation, find the right solution and provider, and then install, integrate and scale the new technology.

It’s no surprise that many companies do not know how to do this, from preparation on how to negotiate in the RFP stage – integrators sometimes over-spec the solution – to the project management that is critical to keep both delivery resources and clients on schedule.

With the MEP National Network, which includes 51 MEP Centers located in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, experts in advanced manufacturing technology and Industry 4.0 work with companies on technology-based needs. This work has involved many qualification/discovery sessions, assessments, and pilot programs with manufacturers. Here are seven of the most common lessons to be learned from our experience with Industry 4.0 implementations:

1. Find a Tech-Agnostic Trusted Advisor for the Long Term

Your Industry 4.0 implementation partner should be interested foremost in solving your problems and be willing to meet you where you are and work from there. It’s about trust and a long-term relationship that includes “organizational acceptance and positive return” – training, adjusting scheduling processes, and aligning your sales processes to take advantage of the higher-profit products that can be produced through Industry 4.0 implementation.

Technology is just a tool for you to improve your operation. You want a partner who can help you when something goes wrong, whether it’s in operations or ordering repair parts, or re-programming a cobot. You have limited time to do research, find providers, and perform due diligence. The partner needs to become an extension of your team and take responsibility through the request for proposal (RFP) process and with project management.

Look for a partner who:

  • Is an honest broker and technology agnostic. If their compensation model depends on a certain solution, who are they really working for?
  • Has the expertise to find the right solution, which will help de-risk your investment. They have seen how things are done in scores of facilities, so they can ask intelligent questions about your operations. They also can facilitate relationships with integrators and vendors.
  • Will help you increase your velocity to value. This means they will bring a structured methodology,and qualified teams of integrators and trainers for a quicker, efficient implementation. It might be your first implementation, but it is not theirs.

2. Find Out Early What the Initiative Is Worth to You

You can use robots for a lot of tasks, but it is not always going to be profitable. The starting point for any Industry 4.0 implementation – even before having defined a solution – is to determine the value of the opportunity. Is your need based on constraints, such as labor issues, or value stream mapping?

If you face labor shortages or a specific skill gap, automation might help manage your risk or reallocate resources to help you grow. An Industry 4.0 implementation must improve overall flow, reduce inventory, or lead to additional capacity. It should not just shift a bottleneck in the operation or there will not be a substantial return on investment (ROI). You can learn a lot by having experts to do an analysis of your capacity and line balance.

3. Don’t Automate Without Process Optimization and a Continuous Improvement Mindset

Perhaps the most essential aspects of readiness for Industry 4.0 implementations are process optimization and a continuous improvement mindset. You should not automate something that is inefficient.

A 5S approach (sort, straighten, shine, standardize, and sustain) is a foundation for more advanced lean tools. A Single-Minute Exchange of Die (SMED) is a system for reducing the time needed for equipment changeovers, which can increase uptime and productivity. Many pain points in your operation can be addressed with traditional manufacturing engineering, such as fixtures and jigs and less expensive approaches.

A big lesson learned is that you need to be able to do lean work before taking on a more transformative technology initiative.

4. Look for Commercial Off-the-Shelf Tech Solutions

There can be a huge difference in an implementation for a relatively simple application with an off-the-shelf solution versus a custom solution. There are standard packages available for many tasks, such as machine tending or adding sensors to collect data. The RFP is relatively simple.

The lesson learned is any time you can use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology, you are likely to reduce friction for costs, time, and complexity. Even for custom work, strive for as close to COTS as possible.

5. Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Technical Specs for RFPs

Unlike COTS technology, custom solutions are much more complicated.This is an area in which the right partner will follow a methodical approach to help ensure an integrator does not over-spec your solution. They will help you evaluate pricing and negotiate, such as asking the vendor to justify their methods and costs. It might look like this four-step process:

  1. Gather specs: Determine requirements for speeds, feeds, part parameters and other considerations for what needs to be done.
  2. Develop a concept: This includes rough costs, ROI, and timing, and is the first go-no go phase. Your partner should be doing leg work to coordinate proposals and equip you to make a decision on vendors and more.
  3. Detailed design: Expertise may include electrical, mechanical, and control engineers. More hardware usually means more design and programming.
  4. Build and startup: There are many variables. Does this impact your production layout? Are you programming a human-machine interface for production of 500 different parts or 50?

6. Connect Operational Performance to Financial Performance

Your partner should have a methodology to the process to ensure you gain full value from an Industry 4.0 implementation, even after project delivery. You will need to account for training for operators, electricians and mechanics. You may need to upskill staff for the install.

Another lesson learned is there is no need to invest in the equipment until you can apply it to a transformative new business model for production. For example, you have seen, through outsourcing, how additive manufacturing has been a big help for you in prototyping parts and even new products. You understand the potential long-term benefits of this technology, especially as it is combined with digital twin software to simulate your production. That doesn’t mean you should go about and spend $500,000 on a metal printer. Don’t think about how a printer can amend your operation. Learn how it takes the design handcuffs off and think about big-picture use cases.

7. Either Solve a Problem or Build to a Vision of a Future State

It’s important to begin with small steps, get early wins, and create confidence. Your first implementation, even if it is a minimum viable concept, should reduce potential points of failure in getting to a positive ROI. Keep it simple as you learn how to use it, service it, and train people on it.

But it’s also important that your 4.0 implementations fit into one of two types of situations:

  • You are solving a problem: Perhaps this solves a labor issue, such as finding enough welders. Maybe you can install robotic welding for much of the repeatable work and use your difficult-to-find experienced welders for higher value tasks. You could be dealing within a constraint or solving a pain point.
  • It fits into your strategic goals: Let’s say you want to add a second shift that runs dark. The right partner will help you develop a roadmap of projects, timelines, and financing to get there. Perhaps you start with machine tending, which has a high enough ROI for you to repurpose full time employees to higher value work and pay for a second project. You are showing tangible signs of progress for everyone to see.

Your Local MEP Center Can Help With Your Industry 4.0 Implementation

Experts at your local MEP Center can help you establish an Industry 4.0 adoption strategy, scope the project, align suppliers with vetted resources and manage implementation to ensure your business goals and customer needs are met. Let’s get the conversation started.

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