IoT and Industry 4.0 for Finishers. Are You Ready?

Internet of Things is the next industrial revolution, and it’s near.


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A customer’s ERP system sends an automatic pull signal to a contract finisher’s computer network, where it predicts that a production order will be ready to leave the customer’s facility in three days. A driverless automated guided vehicle (AGV, think driverless fork truck) arrives at the customer’s fabrication cell at the very moment the order is manufactured, and carries the parts to a waiting semi-truck, which then arrives at the contract coater’s receiving dock two hours later. 

Expecting the order, the contract coater’s ERP system signals his AGV to travel to the dock to remove the parts from the truck’s trailer. Expecting the order, the coating line has reserved adequate capacity, so the AGV travels to the line where a robot awaits its arrival; the robot removes the parts one by one from a container and places them on the coating line.

As the parts travel around the line, virtually limitless data is transmitted. Information about pH, feed rates, line speed, temperatures, flow rates, chemical concentrations and more is all fed to a hungry computer, which analyzes the information and triggers pumps, heaters, rectifiers and the like to make process adjustments in real time. Once coated, the parts are removed by the robot, placed back in the waiting container and carried back to the trailer by the AGV for delivery to the customer’s facility. Sound far-fetched? It’s coming.

Welcome to the ‘Internet-of-Things,’ aka IoT, aka Industry 4.0. For finishers who have yet to familiarize themselves with the next industrial revolution, trust me the time is now.

I traveled to Japan this spring for my own education on Industry 4.0; in this case a collaboration between the robotics and CNC behemoth FANUC, industrial automation and information icon Rockwell Automation and Cisco, the world’s largest networking company. What I saw blew me away: manufacturing equipment being fed by robots that received raw inventory from AGVs, which returned later to carry finished goods away from the manufacturing cell. A human-machine interface (HMI) that enabled me to track every aspect of the production process—production rates, performance to goal, downtime, and hundreds of other key data—in real time from a half-mile, or for that matter half the world away. The plant encompassing more than 100,000 square feet was being operated by a dozen people.

Industry 4.0 is coming to American finishers, and we had better be ready.

The term stems from the concept that we find ourselves at the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution, which follows the third that began in the early 1970s and involved the application of computers and automation to manufacturing processes. The second commenced in the early 20th century with the advent of mass production and assembly lines fueled in part by the use of electricity. The first industrial revolution came about in the early 1700s with advancements in hydro power, steam power and mechanization.

Like its three predecessors—and by its very definition — this industrial revolution will radically change manufacturing as we know it. In the same sense as the examples above, the coming revolution will be characterized by the interconnectivity of virtually every piece of equipment on and around a finishing line. Information about every critical process variable will be transmitted from sensors on the finishing line to a programmable logic controller that will use a pre-defined algorithm to trigger process adjustments in dwell times, line speeds, temperatures, chemical concentrations, feed rates, voltage settings, air pressures and everything else.

Inventory will move about the shop floor with no help from people other than to oversee and maintain the entire process. Scheduling will also be completed by an algorithm, as maintenance tasks will be scheduled and performed on a predictive basis. What’s more, the equipment and systems comprising the entire manufacturing process will compare results such as thickness data, non-conforming product and production rates to the existing process and will make changes to optimize the process on their own. Have you heard the term “Machine Learning” but didn’t quite know what it was or how it will affect finishers? Now you do.

The coming changes will be simultaneously exciting and scary. Four things that should be top of mind as we embark on this most exciting yet daunting journey:

Antennae Up: In the same way that you never see a black Jeep Wrangler on the road until you’re interested in buying one and they then appear to be everywhere, now that you are familiar you will start to see pervasive examples of IoT. Keep an eye out for aspects of this revolution that will affect you and your customers.

Walk Before You Run: Implementing an entirely interconnected finishing operation all at once will be well outside the budget of almost every finisher. Rather, as you consider capital equipment additions and changes to IT systems, do so with an eye toward Industry 4.0. Adaptability and the abilities to both gather/transmit information and be controlled remotely are key.

Shifts in Labor Force and the Continuing Skills Gap: While these advancements are inevitable, look for many to lament the fundamental shift in the production labor force and its effect on current employees. Yes, we will rely more on automation and robotics and less on unskilled labor and while this change will likely be a positive one for quality, reliability, employee safety and the market price of consumer goods, over time its effect on people working in unskilled positions will not be a good one. Thus it will be incumbent on employers to provide an adequate level of training to those employees who express an interest in gaining the important skills necessary to thrive in an Industry 4.0 world. The employers who embrace this opportunity will create for themselves a huge competitive advantage in the decade to come.

Stay Out Front: Finishers who ignore the coming Industry 4.0 tidal wave will do so at their own peril. Take advantage of every opportunity to educate yourself on the coming changes in industrial technology and position your operation to be on the right side of history.