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Four strategies to get the best return on your Industry 4.0 investments

Nov 22, 2021

Smart manufacturing is ushering in a new era of speed, visibility and connection — and just in time, too.

Customer expectations for rapid response, digital self-service tools and immediate access to information are scrambling traditional manufacturing business models. It’s no longer enough to provide the least expensive products or the fastest turnaround time. Manufacturers need to create a world-class customer experience, too. And they need to do it all while managing a talent crunch, creating greater predictability of outcomes, and reducing waste, variation and costs.

Industry 4.0 technologies — including industrial internet of things (IIoT) capabilities, data analytics, automation and predictive analytics — are enabling manufacturers to meet these challenges head-on. Early adopters have already used digital manufacturing technologies to transform every component of their value chain, from the shop floor to back-office functions.

Industry 4.0 is within reach

Yet many manufacturers have been reluctant to adapt out of concern that the technologies are too expensive or complicated (or both). In actuality, economies of scale are putting these tools within reach of even small and mid-sized shops. Implementation costs will continue to trend down as the technologies become more widespread.

However, there is a cost to not getting it right the first time. Returns will diminish quickly if the technology is viewed as a quick fix rather than part of a long-term digital strategy. Low-cost, low-complexity products may fit the bill today, but they may not be the most advantageous investment for long-term growth. Here’s our view on where manufacturers can make smart initial investments to get a better return on their smart manufacturing technologies.

1. IIoT: get connected with sensors

A component of IIoT capabilities, sensor technologies are transforming the industry by opening the throttle on operational and performance data. Sensors are more accessible and practical than ever for small and medium-sized shops — even those operating with legacy equipment — thus enabling more manufacturers to secure a competitive advantage.

Manufacturers can use sensors to learn about the performance of their operations. Applications include insights into current equipment status (such as in-cycle, idle or offline), job progression and per-piece run rates. This data can then be gathered and used for historical comparison across machines, parts, shifts and employees.

As you build a foundation of objective performance data, you can use sensors to track and identify the causes of equipment failure and other unplanned downtime. By weeding out the issues that decelerate your workflows, you can regain minutes, hours and even days of productivity that can be converted into more capacity.

2. Get smart with manufacturing data analytics

Sensors, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and other tools are generating more data today than ever before. With all of that data comes the need to gather, manage and use it. Business intelligence tools and dashboards can help manufacturers channel multiple streams of data into a single source of truth. With real-time information at hand, manufacturers can more quickly and confidently assess performance, analyze trends and make faster, more informed and more intelligent decisions.

To get the most from these tools, manufacturers should first build out specific use cases for what information they need to manage their business. From there, they need to ensure the data is integrated, actionable and always accessible to the appropriate users. Platforms and apps will need to be integrated to unify data flow. And as the data proliferates, manufacturers will need to invest in automated solutions to pull data, transform it, normalize it, cleanse it and make it available to end users.

Once the infrastructure is aligned and unified, you’ll get more benefit from your data and your dashboards.

3. Get efficient through manufacturing automation

There are many reasons to automate and many areas throughout the business in which to automate. While production lines naturally lend themselves to automation, ERPs and other software tools can add tremendous value by removing time-consuming and low-value tasks, such as data collection and report generation.

To get the best return, look for areas where you can remove effort, take out risk, improve machine in-cycle time or reduce variances. Start small by testing out pilot projects before going all-in on a full implementation. Every opportunity to remove simple, straightforward manual processes — and to deploy those employees to higher-value functions — is an opportunity to expand capacity, improve productivity and increase revenues.

4. Get optimized with predictive analytics and machine learning

With predictive analytics and machine learning, you can identify patterns and reveal insights about your customers, supply chain, operations, people, products and production that would otherwise remain hidden. For example, you can use predictive analytics to find connections between sensors and production that can be used to optimize performance. When you are able to key in on what sensor values equate to better production output, you can reduce variance and increase productivity.

When they are applied as part of a larger strategic plan, intelligence packages can pay for themselves in months, not years, by revealing opportunities to run your shop smarter, faster and better. The key, as with all Industry 4.0 technologies, is to make investments with an eye to the bigger picture. To get the most out of a predictive analytics package, you need to first pinpoint a problem you want to solve and have a robust IT backbone and automation capabilities to back you up.

Get ready for what's next with Industry 4.0

No matter where you decide to invest first, the most effective way to maximize your return is to work with a partner that knows your industry. This partner will need to have the expertise to strategically bridge operations and IT across all facets of your business. And because digital transformation is a long-term journey, you will need a partner that will put in the time to understand your business, processes, technology, customers and long-term strategic goals.

That’s where Wipfli’s manufacturing and technology professionals come in. Our deep-rooted experience and comprehensive capabilities enable our team to see the big picture. Learn how we can help you develop a digital transformation roadmap that balances what you need to be more efficient and effective today with the Industry 4.0 services, tools and insights you will need for tomorrow.

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Jake R. Rohrer
Senior Consultant
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