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A practical approach for manufacturers transitioning to Industry 4.0

According to Accenture, the industrial internet of things could add $14.2 trillion to the global economy by 2030. There is a disconnect, however, between the availability of these technologies and capitalizing on their full potential by applying them effectively within organizations. For many executives within the manufacturing industry, IoT, smart factories and intelligence in the cloud are little more than fancy buzzwords proclaiming to one day transform the way your industry will work.

Unfortunately, when you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to think in context of what’s real and achievable in your existing manufacturing environment. After all, automation associations have a 30+ year history of relentlessly pursuing interoperability standards. However, thanks to the OPC Foundation’s Unified Architecture, suppliers are finally able to realize the promise of IIoT for manufacturing applications.

The future of manufacturing is here

Although technology is quickly changing, your goals as a manufacturer likely haven’t. You still aim to please your customers by delivering quality products, while increasing productivity and profitability. Yet, new and unprecedented innovations will potentially impact all aspects of the execution of those goals at the operational level. Smarter connected devices that use open IoT protocols are rapidly penetrating factories. At the same time, the Industry 4.0 trend is showing how people, connected devices and artificial intelligence can work together to make factory automation more efficient and effective. To remain competitive, you must quickly adapt.

Upgrading your legacy systems

A survey of more than 1,400 C-suite decision-makers revealed that while 84% believe their organizations have the capability to create new income streams from IIoT, 73% confess that their companies have yet to make any concrete progress. While your current manufacturing environment is likely driven by legacy technologies that have been around since the late ’90s, such as SCADA, PLCs and OPC, you’re keenly aware that the rapidly evolving technological landscape will require you to understand the impact of new technologies and be ready to embrace those that can deliver measurable advantages. But technological progress always comes at a cost. Be careful not to rush into throwing out all your legacy automation infrastructure, as entirely upgrading your factory to the latest IIoT sensor technologies may be both impractical and unnecessary. Instead, manufacturers should consider technologies that provide a graceful transitional path to the smart factory of the future.

Transitioning to IIoT

While Industry 4.0 is the grand IIoT nirvana manufacturers dream about reaching, many find themselves stuck within the limitations of OPC/SCADA technologies. OPC Classic presented quite a few limitations, including being exclusive to the Microsoft Windows platform, being notoriously unfriendly to modern enterprise security architectures, offering limited scalability and being plagued by frequent configuration issues. On the other hand, OPC Unified Architecture (UA) — a modern standardized communication protocol that enables secure industrial IoT and Industry 4.0 technologies — solves all those problems. OPC UA can be used with any software platform, can scale from small embedded controllers to huge cloud infrastructures, offers robust native security and provides connectivity without context. As a result, OPC UA serves as an ideal bridge between the legacy and next-generation factory automation capabilities. It is the glue that allows you to seamlessly take your existing factory automation infrastructure and tie it into a cloud-connected, artificial-intelligence-powered world. With OPC UA, you can go into an existing factory and enable it for IIoT without buying a bunch of new PLCs. You can experiment immediately with developing cyber-physical systems, realizing the benefits incrementally one production line or factory at a time.

Delivering results

At the end of the day, the goal of evolving your factory toward an Industry 4.0 model is to deliver meaningful improvements in your operational performance. Whether it is by providing more interoperability and decentralized intelligence associated with your machines, or a better contextual control and an understanding of how the data generated by those machines can inform the people who make your business decisions, manufacturers can now focus more on optimizing outcomes and less on the technologies or operational obstacles that have, so far, hindered their progress. Advanced business and operational analytics (including machine learning and predictive intelligence) is the next frontier. Manufacturers are beginning to employ the power and intelligence of AI algorithms in the cloud to detect anomalies, predict failures and advise on the optimal remedial actions that will deliver value to business. Self-service advanced analytics toolkits are now capable of delivering unparalleled insight (using the data from both legacy and IIoT devices) and placing control directly in the hands of domain experts within the business. The latest IIoT human machine interfaces allow real-time visualization of factory systems — using virtual representations often called “Digital twins” — to dramatically improve information transparency. These technologies can place the smart factory of the future well within the reach of even midsize or small manufacturers.

Ultimately, there is no right path toward Industry 4.0; it varies for every manufacturer. For those that have the means to jump headfirst into the world of IIoT, by all means go for it. However, for those manufacturers who don’t have the resources to make the leap overnight, not to worry, you don’t have to replace everything you own. You can simply upgrade to an OPC UA IIoT architecture, tie it into your existing factory automation infrastructure, feed your factory data to the latest cloud-based advanced analytic tools, and immediately begin taking advantage of all Industry 4.0 has to offer.

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