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Back to the Future: What is Industry 4.0?

Did you know that there are more than 6,900 distinct languages used around the world today? Indeed, it would seem that each region, country, or even city has a unique personality and culture that sets it apart from the rest of the world. Yet, there are thousands of commonalities that exist across global societies and industries that enable humankind – and the technologies that define much of our daily lives – to connect and understand one another through a universal “language”.

Consider manufacturing. It doesn’t matter if a factory is based in the United States, Germany, or China. The operating models, fundamental processes, and business goals are often very similar, particularly when you evaluate the operations of sub-sector competitors. Yes, some manufacturers in Europe, for example, may be more technologically more advanced in their production or warehousing system architectures due to government-incentivized motivations or regulatory requirements. But they all maintain access to the same supply chain (if needed), manage similar customer demands and, at the end of the day, compete in the same globally recognized and utilized product categories.

They also face the same level of constant change. As such, manufacturers worldwide are finding that more aggressive modernization of decades-old plant and warehouse business systems – long considered optional for those who had the resources or the risk tolerance – is now obligatory. Competition is fiercer than ever. Frequent fluctuations in market and economic conditions pose their own challenges. And the more technologically-driven, on-demand 21 st century customer is causing a rapid uptick in production volume and customization demands. As such, a fourth industrial revolution – or “post information revolution” as some experts proclaim – is warranted in the manufacturing, warehousing and distribution sectors, and it’s “all about information technology.” Here’s what you need to know:

Industry 4.0 – A Manufacturing Movement by Many Names

Physical to Digital Loop of Industry 4.0

Depending on which language you speak or which region in the world you reside, this fourth industrial revolution may be referred to as Industry 4.0, Industrie 4.0 or the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).Regardless of the localized nomenclature, the underlying principal is universal: “The marriage of digital and physical systems” that, as Deloitte has noted, will pave “the way for increasingly connected experiences that impact everything from product design and planning to supply chain and production.” It was actually a high-tech strategy ideated and promoted by the German government to encourage the computerization of manufacturing, one of the country’s most lucrative industries. As Wikipedia explains it, Industry 4.0 has since evolved into the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies, made possible by a combined utilization of cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things (IoT), and cloud computing among many other advanced digital technologies. Blockchain, artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, virtual reality and augmented reality are also expected to play greater roles in Industry 4.0 system architectures, though the exact use case and value for each has yet to be defined within the complex manufacturing and supply chain environments.

New Tech Mandates: Using Mobility as an Industry 4.0 Enabler

Though Industry 4.0 is just now becoming a strategic consideration, the use of connected technologies in the plant, warehouse or distribution center (DC) is not new, as Deloitte noted. What is a more recent occurrence is the shifting dependency to “smarter” automated systems, and thus, a greater utilization of mobile computing technologies that can digitally collect and transmit complex data sets in real-time between the shop floor, the back-office systems, and the other operational technology systems such as machine sensors. Without mobile technologies in the hands of front-line workers, manufacturers and warehouses will find it challenging to accurately and efficiently maintain the level of multi-system information synchronization that will be required as production demands and supply chain dependencies rapidly increase. Facilities that have not gone paperless, or that rely on legacy/end-of-life technologies, will soon find themselves struggling to sustain the necessary pace of maintenance, quality inspection, production, shipping, receiving and inventory operations in today’s business environment. By investing in highly adaptable, software-agnostic mobile solutions that are compatible with past, present and future IT systems, it is possible to eliminate the redundancies of today’s otherwise fragmented IT environments that could hinder a successful transition to full Industry 4.0 architectures in the coming years.

Will Industry 4.0 Investments Payoff?

Paperless mobile solutions with rugged tablets

Though it’s hard to foresee the future, one thing is certain: Manufacturers and warehouses/DCs need to transition to fully paperless facilities sooner than later to keep pace with new omni-channel business models, greater customization requirements and higher volume production demands. That’s why mobile investments are now considered urgent and mandatory. The good news is that, if you select and deploy the right mobile technologies for your environment, you’ll not only achieve your desired financial, efficiency and manpower gains from the mobile solution itself, but also have the tools you need to extract greater value from more advanced Industry 4.0 technology platforms in the future. But note: Not all mobile computers and accessories were built for industrial environments, nor can all mobile computers satisfy the operational performance requirements of manufacturing and distribution. Look for best-in-class solutions that have been engineered specifically to support manufacturing-related workflows, as they will have the precise I/O, communications, data processing, graphics, storage and security features you need to establish a scalable, future-proof mobile IT platform. If you have a highly flexible, and high performance, mobile solution in place from the start, it will be easier to adapt to the still unpredictable technology requirements of a more mature Industry 4.0 manufacturing environment.

Want to learn more about how you can put Industry 4.0 to work for your manufacturing and warehouse operations? Check out these Deloitte resources:

Industry 4.0 and Manufacturing Ecosystems

Industry 4.0 and Distribution Centers