The Fourth Dimension

by David Robinson, Head of Innovation and Technology at Capula

Industry 4.0, or “Smart Manufacturing” if you prefer the U.S. term, covers a broad range of concepts and technologies, from 3D printing to the industrial Internet of Things. At its core, it is about combining the physical world, of products and manufacturing machines, with the digital world of rapid communication, advanced data analytics and artificial intelligence. That has the potential to do all sorts of good things for manufacturers, like improving the accuracy of their demand forecasts, the flexibility of their production systems and the reliability of their assets.

Industry 4.0 is a catch-all term that encompasses a host of technologies that have been evolving quietly for decades. Like sensors and automation systems, industrial networks and data analysis tools. All of those are real things that many companies already rely on to run their businesses. So what’s changed? Here are five ways that the latest generation of technologies stand out from their predecessors and the legacy systems in use across industry today:


Today’s systems are built on open standards for communication, data storage and user interaction. That makes them faster and cheaper to develop, implement and maintain. It reduces the risk that companies are caught out by technologies that can’t talk to each other, or which become obsolete.  And makes it far easier to scale solutions rapidly as new approaches are proved, or as business needs change.


Those open standards also make it possible to connect multiple machines, data sources or applications in a seamless way. Capula’s OPUS building performance management solution, for example, provides a single management interface for energy management systems, security and access controls, HVAC systems and even production equipment. It can connect multiple facilities together to give organisations total control over their buildings worldwide. And it shares data with external business applications, from financial management systems to HR tools.


Internet technologies are transforming the usability of even the most powerful automation systems. Users can access the data and control functions they need from anywhere, using a wide range of devices – from dedicated HMI panels to smart phones. That boosts productivity, increases management flexibility and simplifies maintenance, technical support and troubleshooting.


With Industry 4.0, you aren’t stuck with the system you have now. Open standards, again, coupled with today’s advanced development environments, make it far easier to extend and adapt existing solutions. New equipment can be added, new applications developed or new data sources integrated in a modular way, with little requirement to write and test complex code.


Today’s solutions are built for the rigours of real industrial environments. Robust encryption and security technologies make it easy to ensure the right people have access to the right data and applications, while protecting against malicious action and data theft. Fault tolerance can be built in, with distributed system architectures, redundancy and effective back up and disaster recovery systems.

Adopting these technologies across a manufacturing operation has the potential to deliver many different benefits. As a result, the impact of Industry 4.0 is likely to vary significantly from company to company, depending on the types or products involved, and the business or service models that support those products. Here are just a few of the more notable use cases that companies are already exploiting today.

Transforming flexibility

Smart automation systems can take companies one step closer to the lean ideal of totally flexible single piece flow. Smart machines can identify the parts presented to them – using RFID tags or printed codes – configure themselves and carry the appropriate operation, all within a single manufacturing cycle. That doesn’t just help manufacturers reduce waiting time and work in-process inventories, it also helps them offer significant additional value to their customers. If any desired product is available on-demand, those customers can cut their inventories, and spend less time worrying about forecasting.

 Ramping up reliability

Condition monitoring systems that use temperature or vibration sensors to spot developing problems within machines are already well established in some sectors. Industry 4.0 will make it easier and cheaper to extend these techniques to a much wider range of assets. It will also allow those systems to get smarter still. Advanced analytics techniques can automatically correlate deviations from specification found later in the manufacturing process with subtle changes in machine condition, for example. That’s helping companies to fix difficult and longstanding quality challenges.

 Enhancing efficiency

As energy and resource consumption rise up the agenda in many organisations, Industry 4.0 offers new ways to boost manufacturing efficiency. Machines can adapt their energy consumption according to the precise condition of the incoming material. Advanced analytics techniques can untangle the complex relationships between energy use, output, and quality. That helps avoid sub-optimal decisions, where savings in one part of a process lead to higher consumption elsewhere. It also lets companies tune their processes in response to changes in product mix or overall demand.

 Getting from here to there

Achieving all these promised benefits won’t be easy, however. One side-effect of today’s technological change is a shift from general purpose technologies and devices, like PCs and PLCs, to highly specialised solutions tailored for individual applications. The building blocks for your Industry 4.0 solutions are as likely to come from a new start-up or an adjacent industry as they are from the equipment suppliers you used in the past. The systems that can identify hidden trends in mountains of production data are often based on the approaches retailers use to learn from loyalty card data or online purchasing habits, for example.

And while technology is an essential enabler, it isn’t the whole solution. There are also important cultural implications: your people will have to be comfortable switching from manual to automated processes, and ready to trust the decisions made by their data systems. You’ll need to be pragmatic: your smart manufacturing systems will have to work with your existing assets and Infrastructure. And you’ll need to be bold: taking risks and experimenting with new ideas to gain vital knowhow and valuable experience.

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