Industry 4.0: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Industry 4.0 is poised to fulfill our vision of digital manufacturing through the automation and connection of smart devices, machines and production processes capable of driving efficiency while reducing cost, risk and time-to-market. For most of us, operational efficiency and cost reductions form the Industry 4.0 intersection where the rubber meets the road. Reaching that destination requires a precise path and careful navigation of a multi-year journey.

Along the way, we experience successes and setbacks while ensuring the highest levels of safety, security and IP protection for our customers. We’re seeing steady progress, especially among Molex partners and customers in robotics, complex machines and device or control systems. According to the findings from Molex’s just-released “State of Industry 4.0 Survey,” sponsored by Molex and conducted by third-party research firm, Dimensional Research, 87% of these critical manufacturing stakeholders are excited about Industry 4.0’s tremendous potential over the next decade. It was gratifying to see reports of achievement from companies focused on enabling significant Industry 4.0 operational improvements.

Overall, the survey participants had clear expectations for desired business outcomes from deploying solutions that enable Industry 4.0. Topping that list was the opportunity to build better products (69%) and reduce manufacturing costs (58%), followed by the opportunity to increase revenues (53%) and decrease time-to-market of new solutions (35%).

Half of the respondents cited major successes to date while only 21% have yet to realize any payoff because they’re still in the investment stage. More than half of the survey participants expect to meet their Industry 4.0 goals within two years while a third believe it will take up to five years to reach that milestone. That’s a pretty aggressive schedule, especially when you consider the amount of time required to tool up an industrial manufacturing line. After all, some experts theorize that industrial manufacturing lead times are longer than entire product lifecycles in other industries.

Iterative Steps = Incremental Benefits

In my optimistic yet pragmatic view of Industry 4.0, the optimal approach is to take iterative steps that produce incremental improvements. For example, advancements in machine-to-machine communication and secure, remote connection devices can yield substantial improvements in intelligent process control and real-time data access, which are two critical success factors in every Industry 4.0 endeavor.

For the most part, survey participants were aligned with this thinking. According to a poll of capabilities considered most beneficial to their Industry 4.0 initiatives, respondents named their top three choices:

  • Machines are all given enough intelligence to control their own processes and interact externally (53%)
  • Remote access to all production lines and machines (47%)
  • Versatile connectivity solutions that include Internet (40%)

Data aggregation and management is another essential area that requires a lot of ongoing coordination and calibration. It’s not enough to just collect data from different sensors and machines, you need to consolidate actionable business insights to better manage manufacturing assets. Survey respondents also saw the potential for their customers to benefit from the use of advanced data analytics to self-optimize operations (50%) as well as unlock access to real-time data across facilities (26%). Additionally, they identified a range of other potential benefits, including increased efficiency of robots, machines and other manufacturing assets (58%); greater flexibility on manufacturing lines (50%); the ability to virtually design and simulate new production facilities before making investments (42%); and increase labor productivity (41%).

Looking out on the horizon, another important iterative step is the integration of functional safety capabilities into complex devices, while enabling multiple devices within a plant environment to communicate. The ability to consolidate these communications will pave the way to further incremental improvements in operational safety along with the opportunity to reduce hardware costs.

Crossing the Great Organizational Divide 

Despite a sunny outlook for Industry 4.0, survey respondents are struggling to close cultural and  organizational gaps that could potentially delay or derail their efforts. While more than half of those polled claim to have well-defined, executive-sponsored initiatives, there appear to be some differences and disconnects between company leaders and their managers. According to the survey, 75% of executive-level respondents described their initiatives as well-defined priorities, yet only 44% of managers polled agreed with that assessment.

Moreover, 45% of those surveyed cited leadership’s reluctance to advocate for change and comfort with traditional approaches as the top organizational or cultural challenge impacting current efforts. Additionally, there was strong agreement (85%) among participants that leadership needs to change its thinking for Industry 4.0 to thrive. Clearly, it’s paramount to ensure everyone is on the same page in order to fuel effective Industry 4.0 efforts.

At Molex, our Industry 4.0 vision is aligned with the need to adopt digital and connected solutions across the industrial automation ecosystem by embedding automation, connectivity and analytics that add efficiency and intelligence throughout the manufacturing lifecycle. Developing a strategic communications plan for articulating this vision was crucial, along with the development of a game plan for engaging and enabling everyone in the organization who will play a role in making this vision a reality.

The survey results reveal consensus on both strategic vision and tactical execution as a prerequisite for major organizational transitions, like Industry 4.0. The same can be said for digital transformation investments, which interestingly enough, were deemed an accelerant for Industry 4.0 initiatives by 58% of the respondents.

Reducing Technology Barriers

The pathway to all important industry evolutions is littered with technology roadblocks, so it comes as no surprise that nearly every survey participant said their customers faced challenges in implementing Industry 4.0. Chief among those were problems caused by separate IT and OT network infrastructures (42%), followed by restrictive communications protocols (39%), remote access limitations (36%), cloud infrastructure and data solutions not suited for manufacturing needs (34%) and inadequate security capabilities (32%).

While these all represent formidable hurdles, 44% of the respondents still felt organizational or cultural barriers were more difficult to overcome. What this tells us is that as technology advances, adoption and integration barriers can be lowered enough to spur continuous innovation and improvement. Organizational or cultural barriers, however, can make it extremely difficult to cross the corporate chasm.

Path to Manufacturing Flexibility

Finding and flexing Industry 4.0 value is a team sport, requiring buy-in and participation at all organizational levels. Fully empowered, cross-functional teams and close customer collaboration are among the key ingredients needed to accelerate the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This will set the stage for a seamless transition to Industry 5.0 in the years ahead.

At Molex, we envision a plethora of emerging opportunities made possible by Industry 4.0 and major increases in manufacturing flexibility. Our automotive customers will be able to measure this in terms of building dozens of car models on the same production line while swapping out different features and trim levels automatically. Intelligent automation and predictive analytics will ensure those lines operate at peak efficiency and uptime levels, enabling them to build better cars faster and at lower cost.

Regardless of industry segment, Industry 4.0 is creating a global manufacturing sea change. As cyber and physical processes meld on factory floors around the world, the integration of methodologies, mindsets and technologies will usher in a new era of productivity gains that will define the future of manufacturing.

Vice President and General Manager of Industrial Solutions