How industry 4.0 can make the impossible possible

In a world of short lead times, on-demand production, and mass customisation, industry 4.0 represents an opportunity for manufacturers to compete on a global stage – regardless of their size. Proto Labs' Stephen Dyson writes.

There is a tangible sense of excitement around Industry 4.0, a paradigm currently creating change and opening up new opportunities for businesses by leveraging digital manufacturing, robotics and automation. However, the move into the fourth industrial revolution presents many within the manufacturing industry with the challenge of just how to adopt these developments across their organisations.

At its core, Industry 4.0 is the term for the trend towards web-connected manufacturing processes based on advanced automation and robotics.  The technologies supporting these processes are delivering unparalleled levels of productivity, quality and efficiency. In doing so, they are laying the foundations for entirely new ways of doing business, such as build-to-order, and servitisation, in which businesses create value by adding services to their products.

The challenge that businesses face now is how to integrate these new technologies, digital manufacturing and automation. These techniques affect the factory floor, wider business and the supply chain that lies beyond it.

Essentially, Industry 4.0 isn’t just a different approach to manufacturing; it’s also a completely new take on managing the supply chain.

Competing on a global stage

Industry 4.0 has undeniably had a significant impact on traditional manufacturing and business processes.  In a world of short lead times, on-demand production, and mass customisation, it represents an opportunity for manufacturers to compete on a global stage – regardless of their size.

Large stocks of inventory tend to buffer each aspect of the traditional value chain, from factory to wholesaler, wholesaler to retailer, and retailer to customer. Digital connectivity, however, will efficiently sidestep these; by interacting with online product configuration tools and web-based ERP order-taking systems, customers are able to order products directly. Additionally, once orders are received, manufacturing and fulfilment will follow automatically.

Industry 4.0 is a reality for a growing number of businesses, with more and more manufacturers combining digital manufacturing techniques with web connectivity to dramatically increase what’s possible for them to achieve.

The power of the approach

While manufacturing technologies such as advanced 3D printing, CNC machining, and injection moulding offer an unprecedented speed to market for engineers and designers, it’s worth noting that the power of the approach lies not just in the individual types of production technology. Indeed, the most important thing about digital manufacturing is how it makes these technologies available as part of an end-to-end digital process that starts with the customer, and ends with a part being shipped within a matter of days from being ordered.

With processes underpinned by a web-based automated quoting system, delivering real-time pricing provided by software that translates digital 3D CAD models into high-speed manufacturing equipment, the ease and convenience of the service offer is further increased.  

Making connections

The technical capabilities presented in Industry 4.0 enable a method of business interaction very different to that of conventional business models and the traditional value chain.

To support these new capabilities, businesses will be facing additional investment for purchasing and integrating new software and processes, including upgrading of back office systems, and developing of customer-facing web applications.  To support the technical advances taking place, many employees will need to adapt and develop their skills, gaining expertise in digital manufacturing, robotics and automation.  While this is occurring, the need for traditional manufacturing skills will be depleted.

Fundamentally, digital manufacturing is a series of connections that join customers to business processes and production technologies, viewing each new connection as a step on the digital manufacturing journey to Industry 4.0 and the opportunities this represents.

Stephen Dyson is the head of Industry 4.0 at Proto Labs.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

Related Topics

Industry 4.0