Molex Q&A: What Industry 4.0 Means for Tomorrow’s Factories

The development of Industry 4.0 technologies has accelerated at a rapid pace, with cause for optimism that the future of industrial automation will be scalable, open and integrated.

In the upcoming element14/Molex webinar, “How Will Industry 4.0 and IIoT Change Manufacturing?” Molex’s Jeff Barnes will discuss how Molex is enabling fourth-generation manufacturing and providing end-to-end and component-level solutions to machine builders, robot manufacturers and system integrators.  

Jeff has been working in the industry with a focus on factory automation for 16 years. As the distribution corporate account manager for Industrial Europe, he is responsible for all industrial sales with a focus on factory automation via all of Molex distribution partners in the region. In the following Q&A, Jeff highlights some of the topics he covers with more depth in the webinar.

Q: Can you provide a brief overview of Industry 4.0 and the technology driving it?

A: Industry 4.0 is really the next industrial revolution, and I think of it as more of an evolution. The first Industrial Revolution was the mechanization of steam power. The second revolution was the electrification of assembly lines, the third brought computer control and more automation into operations, and the fourth is bringing those computer-controlled capabilities into the connected internet world. There’s a lot more information coming from big data and smart factories today. Industry 4.0 entails gathering that information from a simple device on a machine into a usable platform so people can monitor things like preventative maintenance, the quality of products they’re making, and where the inefficiencies and bottlenecks in the machines are [in order to] improve overall productivity.

Q: What are some ways that Industry 4.0 will change the manufacturing industry? 

A: One big change we will see is real-time machine-to-machine (M2M) communication. While the operations of a factory, such as conveyor speeds or product components used, are typically programmed and adjusted manually, M2M communication will allow adjustments to product and assembly lines to occur automatically without human intervention. This creates a more efficient and streamlined process and allows for real-time changes in the supply chain, such as automatically switching from filling 2-liter soda bottles to half-liter soda bottles without stopping or resetting machinery.

Q: How does this connectivity affect operational and informational security in manufacturing? 

A: Security is a huge concern for many technology adopters and is an integral part of any Industry 4.0 system with interconnected devices sharing information via the internet. Many manufacturers have highly sensitive information, and increased connectivity also means increased vulnerabilities and the potential for cyberattacks.

The loss of information or the risk of intellectual property being transmitted through machines is a great concern. In smart factories, operational technology (OT) is the machine side of things, and information technology (IT) is the network that controls it. Molex industrial automation solutions seek to address security at every level from the earliest phase of design.

Q: What should machine builders and robot manufacturers do to prepare for the transforming industrial landscape? 

A: Machine builders and robot manufacturers need to look at the evolution of the architecture of machine connectivity and how a machine communicates. In the current world of machines, using the bottle-filling machine example, there’s a master controller looking after the 2 conveyor lines and filling machine. One conveyor is being run by a brain programmable logic controller (PLC), the second one is being run by a separate PLC, and the filling machine is run by another one, all reporting to a master. If the filling machine wants to talk to the conveyor, it has to go through the master. It happens quickly in a machine, but there’s still that inefficiency. By using real-time M2M communication and remote access, machines can talk to each other and have their own decision abilities based on the needs of the filling machine. Builders also need to prepare for Industry 4.0 by thinking about how their products will integrate into manufacturing or logistics centers—for example, what are the needs of their customers and what’s available in the current market to meet those needs in the most expedited way?

Q: What challenges might be caused by the integration of machine learning, connected devices, and other technologies, and how can those be addressed? 

A: One of the biggest challenges is adoption. In many cases, machine builders, integrators and designers may have the attitude that their factories are working just fine—they may see no issue with their current technology or process. Meanwhile, we have millennials who have never known the world without the internet entering the industry in programming and machine-building roles, and they’re challenging the norm. They understand that the current process may not be the most cost-effective or flexible. Molex overcomes this resistance to change by emphasizing that the technologies associated with Industry 4.0 do not require an all-or-nothing approach.

Q: What will the next 5 years hold for the digital manufacturing space? 

A: In the coming years, we are likely to see the industry shift away from centralized, top-down control in favor of distributed control architectures with embedded safety and security. As technology advances and machines need to be upgraded or replaced, more manufacturers will progress toward adopting IIoT and Industry 4.0 solutions.

The integration of distributed control architectures will enable factories to begin to move safety and intelligence closer to the point of need and enable dynamic real-time processing. The industry has already seen significant strides toward enabling decentralized control, with secure, remote access that enables plant managers and engineers to control functionality and safety across the factory floor.

Q: How can Molex help manufacturers adapt to and embrace Industry 4.0? 

A: Molex is developing products and solutions that facilitate a lot of the technologies we’ve discussed. These have local logic control, can look after their own conveyor, utilize real-time M2M capabilities, and talk to the cloud or internet for remote access into their suppliers databases to see what’s happening. Ultimately, our aim is to ensure our customers have the knowledge and tools they need to solve their toughest challenges, while remaining agile on the journey to Industry 4.0.

Jeff Barnes will discuss in greater depth how Industry 4.0 and IIoT will change manufacturing in an upcoming webinar hosted by element14. Click here for more information.