Industry 4.0: Ushering in the Era of Smart Machines and Robotics

Industrial Automation (AI) is at an inflection point. Organizations around the world are well on the way to implementing the technologies that allow them to realize the promise of Industry 4.0. Indeed, the recent State of Industry 4.0 Survey conducted by Molex, determined that 87% of respondents are excited about the transformative power of Industry 4.0 over the next decade. But how do organizations develop smart ways to leverage these advancements as machines leap forward in intelligence and capability?

The IA supply chain—from robot manufacturers to complex machine builders and systems integrators to line constructors—is well positioned to move forward to the machine intelligence future that will make Industry 4.0 a reality, with nearly 70% of respondents optimistic that it will help them build better products. Yet there are still some obstacles to overcome, such as the separation of IT and OT, and communication protocols that are too limited, translating to legacy infrastructure and associated investments slowing down the transformation.

To achieve an effective transition to Industry 4.0, organizations must modify existing unwieldy IA command structures to deliver greater flexibility, a more free flow of communications, and smart connectivity across an open, scalable and connected platform that taps into the full power of Industry 4.0 technologies.

When machines become smart

Effectively utilizing smart machines and robotics requires tremendous machine efficiency. This can only be achieved by enhancing machine autonomy that applies its logic locally, on a machine-to-machine (M2M) basis, while maintaining best practices for both operational technology and cybersecurity. The result is several anticipated customer benefits, including increased efficiency of robots, machines, and other manufacturing assets (58%) as well as greater flexibility on manufacturing lines (50%).  

A primary goal of Industry 4.0 is pragmatic implementation, which means real-time data is available to inform effective and timely decision making, yet barriers remain to make this a reality. We can make machines smart, but until they can tie in, connect and communicate effectively, both between each other and with critical I/O nodes and junctures across whole distributed control systems and IA networks, our ability to drive these goals is limited.

Many in the industry who aim to achieve performance models on a par with the promise of Industry 4.0 are adding sensors to their IA infrastructure, but determining what to do with the additional data generated remains a problem. For example, how is this data analyzed and looped back from the cloud in a way that advances OT scenarios in near real time? While Molex offers customers support for this capability, the industry has largely struggled to achieve this advanced level.

With decades of experience, we understand that the market has been through four stages of evolution and is now at what we would characterize as the Smart I/O phase, which offers enhanced margins for all. We see the next stage focusing on achieving increased flexibility, which would specifically add logic to eliminate, where possible, the programmable logic controller (PLC). This approach drastically reduces cabinet size, improving cost structures in the process.

It’s important to recognize that systems can and need to evolve, which requires a lot of planning, especially to meet the goal of resolving the communications challenges of Industry 4.0. Designing and building systems that can effectively evolve means incorporating any architectural changes at the outset, to enable the increased flexibility and scalability needed to go forward. This is a process of recognizing what must be in place in the future, and planning appropriately, removing boundaries while emphasizing adaptability to long-term customer needs.

Several key sectors realizing early success

Automotive has emerged as one of the primary sectors that’s successfully implemented a multitude of smart machines made by innovative robotic machine builders. Materials handling, on the other hand, has responded to recent huge spikes in needs for greater automation in distribution, e-commerce, and warehousing by deploying these machines. While food & beverage (F&B) is utilizing these technologies to rapidly shift from the old ‘wet’ method of filling and bottling, for example, to transition to more cost-effective ‘dry’ processing.

With the Automotive sector demanding a great deal of assembly machines, we’ve seen their adoption of modules that can be both plugged in and removed easily, can have a significant impact on overall line productivity, flexibility and customization. This switching in and out of modules means that new models can roll off the production line quickly. 

Like many in the industry, Molex pursues a pragmatic approach to achieving M2M efficiency by supplying IO-Link technology, a prime example of an M2M interface that advances the possibilities for Industry 4.0 on a cross-industry basis. Welcome news for all of those driving Industry 4.0 is that IO-Link is currently enjoying a wave of popularity, with adoption rising on a strongly upward curve in 2020. In fact, by the end of 2020, IO-Link had been deployed across 21 million nodes, an increase of 31% over 2019*.

IO-Link’s popularity is not difficult to explain. It is an up-to-date interface for connecting sensors and actuators in direct support of the ambitious goals of Industry 4.0, including the important processes of monitoring and predictive maintenance. With the optimization of the entire manufacturing process becoming an increasingly important need, data on temperature and humidity of the manufacturing environment will need to be integrated with the broader range of production data to provide new insights into best practices for the total production journey, including backend procedures for test and QA.

Yet Molex recognizes that while driving machine efficiency of Industry 4.0 can be enhanced by greater machine autonomy that applies its logic locally, on an M2M basis, we are not limited to the capabilities of IO-Link.

Rather, we see the production data gathered from sensors and then processed by Business Intelligence systems located in the cloud, can be handled more flexibly by Smart I/O technology on a local production line, without the need for a master PLC to implement total control. It’s this approach that then enables us to offer highly versatile, customized solutions.

The speed of autonomy

Respondents to Molex’s industry survey indicated frustration with many of the protocols, including those of the venerable Fieldbus, that now dominates IA systems. An infusion of open communication—including improved remote access and further functional integration of robotics—were frequently on industry practitioner wish lists.

Counter-intuitive though it may seem, the many benefits of Industry 4.0 will likely only be realized when plant managers learn to cede control to enhance M2M interfacing through increased levels of localized logic and safe, autonomous functionality.

This heightened autonomy is the next logical step towards a more smart and connected future. Enabling the software definition of the machines, robots and production lines allows them to meet escalating demands for connected, secure, scalable, and efficient operations. By eliminating manual steps and reducing hardware dependency, organizations will see clear paths to lower total cost of ownership (TCO), improved margins and greater agility in meeting emerging digital manufacturing demands in the not-too-distant future.

**Source: Reinhard Schlagenhaufer – Leader, IO-Link Working Group

Global Senior Director of Industrial Automation Solution