This article appeared in the July 2021 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.
Major technology breakthroughs are no longer just the stuff of startups in places like Silicon Valley, Boston or The Research Triangle. Today, technological innovation is happening in every front office and shop floor, and the Industry 4.0 revolution is underway.
So what is it?
Industry 4.0 can be described as the latest evolution of manufacturing technology, utilizing concepts such as systems integration, data collection and analysis, automation and robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT).
Sound complicated? Well, it doesn’t have to be. Simply put, Industry 4.0 describes technologies and processes that are helping manufacturers understand their operations better and leverage that information to increase productivity and efficiency.
“With Industry 4.0, we are seeing a shift that is transforming U.S. manufacturing,” says Robert Scipione, Applications Engineer with the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center (The Center). Scipione and The Center help manufacturers understand Industry 4.0 and how these evolving technologies can be applied in order to increase revenue and innovation.
“Industry 4.0 provides levels of interconnectivity that empowers a business to make decisions in real time,” he says. “Ultimately, [Industry 4.0] will enable manufacturers to become more flexible and react to market changes. With the ability to enable new processes, products and services, Industry 4.0 can increase innovation speed, and it is consumer-centered, leading to faster design processes and closer interaction with customers.”
Using Automation to Increase Revenue and Attract Talent
Heidi and Bob Devroy, Owners of Richmond-based Prosper-Tech Machine and Tool, had a problem — they didn’t have enough people to meet customer demand, which is a challenge nearly all manufacturers and employers are experiencing. Finding skilled talent in a large labor market can be hard enough but, if you’re a small manufacturer in a small town, it’s not just difficult, it’s nearly impossible. The Devroys started Prosper-Tech in a town of about 6,000 people 14 years ago. Today, with 11 employees, they are using technology and Industry 4.0 technologies such as robots and automation to augment staffing challenges and help grow the business.
Their adoption of these new concepts came through a medical client opportunity which placed a significant strain on production.
“It was hundreds of parts being machined. Instead of just one, or two, or three, it was hundreds,” said Bob, who worked in the automotive industry before starting Prosper-Tech with his wife. The new opportunity meant they would have to run a third shift — which is easier said than done.
“For our shop size, we would need three people working at night, which is not easy to accomplish,” says Heidi.
The lack of talent to meet the company’s growth led to the Devroys investing in new equipment and a robot that could run continuously to take advantage of those “lights out” opportunities. It has worked out so well; they are now considering adding more equipment to the robot. Despite the initial up-front investment, which Heidi admits was a major hurdle to get over, they’re already seeing the payoff.
Heidi sums up the decision: “I’m very conservative financially and don’t want to go under. But I also recognize that we have to keep progressing with the technology and take advantage of what it has to offer.”
Prosper-Tech has taken a “grow-your-own” approach to staffing by blending the knowledge of their experienced mold makers with the tech savviness of their machinist and mold maker apprentices. Research has shown that providing opportunities for professional development and to “upskill” through learning new technology is a major driver when cultivating new talent — and Prosper-Tech has crafted that approach well.
“I think that the younger crowd thrives with technology. They migrate towards it. And I also think it makes it easier to sell the machine shop format as a career,” Heidi adds. “And it’s a service to them because...they’re learning at a shop that has cutting-edge technology.”
To further encourage growth for their business and the industry as a whole, the Devroys planned to take apprentices to the 2020 International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) but it was cancelled due to COVID-19. They now plan on attending the 2022 IMTS to, “...let them experience it firsthand, and see the latest technology out there. Even though we may not be able to do it here, they at least know what’s there, and it helps their minds grasp what’s coming next,” says Bob.
Prosper-Tech is one of the many manufacturers in Michigan that has taken a successful leap into Industry 4.0 and is a great example of how these advanced technologies are accessible to shops large and small. However, facing that change can be challenging, especially if your company is working with more traditional and conventional manufacturing technology. For older, more established manufacturers or those with fewer years behind them, the evolution that Industry 4.0 represents can be daunting for management and employees alike. It goes beyond operational change and becomes a significant cultural change with the challenge becoming how to bring all stakeholders through that change effectively. Change can often bring resistance and, because of this, getting started can often be the hardest part.
“It can be technical-oriented resistance, meaning they technically don’t know how to work the new software. Or, sometimes it can be political resistance,” says Jeremiah Worthington, co-founder of Endurium, a technology consultation and IT management company that focuses on the manufacturing sector.
Worthington, along with Endurium’s other co-founder Eric Gerdes, focuses on engaging with management to help “evangelize” Industry 4.0 and how it can benefit the business, while at the same time taking steps to identify the challenges the business is facing and potential solutions. Manufacturers deal with a number of issues from the front office to the production floor, and often those challenges will impact productivity and/or overall efficiency. Identifying those root causes impacting the bottom line is often the first step.
“Minimal investment in technology and auto-
mation can lead to significant gains in efficiency, effectiveness and accuracy while lowering labor requirements,” says Worthington.
Using Data Collection to Revive a Traditional Plastics Manufacturer
Nigam Tripathi is quite educated in the use of big data and other Industry 4.0 concepts, having worked in manufacturing for 30 years, with about 12 of those years at Ford Motor Company. In 2013, Tripathi bought W-L Molding, a plastic injection molding company founded in 1945, and he was immediately presented with a unique challenge to apply his industry knowledge to a company that had been operating with traditional manufacturing technology and equipment.
In order to figure out what steps to take first, next and beyond, he needed to collect data to make informed decisions.
“One of the first things we did was to centralize data collection and to upgrade current Manufacturing Resource Planning system. What they were using before was pretty outdated,” says Tripathi. Next is to start investing in automation and evaluate data collection and Enterprise Resource Planning system. “So, we updated the system and started to look at things like, who is our (target) customer? What are their expectations? What kind of stuff do we need to do?”
Installing new equipment, technology and processes was the first step but Tripathi also wanted to inject his data-oriented mindset into the company’s culture. Coming from big organizations like Ford, utilizing metrics to make strategic decisions — often in real time — can become second nature, according to Tripathi.
“You can get really used to having that information available,” says Tripathi. “For a company like W-L, it was really like starting from scratch. So there has been a real education process, and it’s been eye-opening for the company.”
The first step in addressing pain points that are affecting the bottom line will typically start with system integration and data collection, according to Mike Schipper, Founder and CEO of InsITe Business Solutions Inc., a Michigan-based IT consulting firm.
In order for manufacturers to recognize the risk areas and opportunities for improvement, connecting and integrating systems is a first step in developing more understanding about operations. Once systems are connected and data can be collected, that’s when analysis can take place to help manufacturers make more informed strategic decisions.
Accessing the right data is crucial for understanding key metrics such as Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), according to Dave Poggi, CEO and Principal Consultant for Software InsITe. Trying to solve and account for inefficiencies in certain machines and processes is a very common issue for many of InsITe’s clients.
“Typically, we’ll hear that a machine can produce X parts per hour and they’re only getting 65 percent of that. So, what’s happening here?” says Poggi. “We’ll be able to connect relatively simple IoT devices, and from there we’ll be able to see how many strokes per minute...know what parts are running, see the production rates and so on. And we’re not doing anything fancy, but it’s huge to have this data and be able to understand what’s actually happening on your shop floor.”
Connecting systems can also improve workflow from the front office to the shop floor, especially with latest generation of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) platforms which are better equipped than ever to help integrate business processes through software and technology. Worthington points out that efficiencies can be realized with non-production-
related areas of the business such as accounting, human resources and IT management but it’s difficult to realize those gaps without some level of systems integration.
Driving the Future with IoT
The Internet of Things (IoT) describes systems and machines, outfitted with sensors that are able to talk to one another and optimize in real time. It’s a newer area that has enabled businesses to improve efficiency, increase revenue and improve workflows, which are just some of the benefits.
At the Piston Group, a large automotive supplier that has grown to nearly $3 billion in annual sales in 2020, they understand fully that these connected and integrated technologies are key to their future growth, says Vinnie Johnson, Piston Group Founder, Chairman and CEO.
“Optimizing Industry 4.0 technologies is key to fueling our growth and is woven throughout our strategy at Piston Automotive and at the corporate, Piston Group level,” says Johnson. “At Piston Automotive, we’re taking a phased approach, initially starting with system integration, access to real-time data and automation, to establish a solid foundation of information that will enable us to make better manufacturing and operation decisions.”
Real time production reporting has improved their inventory accuracy and ultimately enabled them to reduce inventory levels. Automation of production scheduling has led to an improvement of their overall equipment efficiency by reducing the need to manually manage and track changeovers, and it eliminates past problems of over/under production of specific parts. The automation of big data collection throughout the entire manufacturing process has enabled faster and more accurate troubleshooting of issues, from product quality to repair and maintenance of equipment.
“To stay competitive we need to continue to learn to work both faster and smarter,” says Bob Holloway, President of Piston Automotive. “This includes using data to improve efficiencies, solve problems and identify and manage issues before they become bigger issues.
“Today 100 percent of our manufacturing and shop floor equipment is connected to our network, including our Manufacturing Execution System (MES) and ERP systems,” he adds.
They were an early adopter of Ethernet IP communications across their shop floor, which has allowed them to stay on top of industry trends. In addition, their shop floor manufacturing equipment is fully integrated from their ERP system through MES and then back up so they have full automation of production scheduling, production reporting, shipping application and data collection throughout that entire process chain.
Their goal one day is to “have all employees, down to line workers, have access to data tied to their line/specific role. This level of data will empower decision- making throughout the organization,” says Holloway.
The Only Constant in Manufacturing is Change
Keeping up with the technology and Industry 4.0 is a constant process that even large manufacturers have to manage in order to grow. Keeping up with the trends can be daunting, admits Scipione from The Center.
“It is easy to become overwhelmed when considering adopting new technologies,” he says. “The first step to implementing technology is to understand the voices of both the business and the customer to identify how the organization could benefit from innovations.”
He adds, “Proper prioritization using a needs-based assessment can result in an adoption that is both strategically sound and capable of generating savings to support further investments going forward.”
Michigan manufacturers large and small have shown the ability and willingness to continue to evolve — but, often times, getting started is the hardest part. Scipione recommends starting small, either with a particular new technology or piece of equipment, then build from there.
“It starts with the question of whether they are ready for new technology. Do they need to address other issues first like the operation of their organization? Do they need to apply lean manufacturing practices? And how is their culture? Is their culture ready to adapt technology or do they need to improve their culture first?
“Then it’s about creating a blueprint. What’s the first step? What makes the most sense from an ROI standpoint? Start small. It’s about taking one step at a time to ensure that investments will create a cost savings to pay for the next step,” says Scipione.
At the end of the day, Industry 4.0 represents an opportunity for manufacturers to make better, more profitable decisions through information and understanding while applying cutting edge technologies to increase efficiency. Whether it’s using robots that run continuously, connecting systems to collect machine-level data or implementing new software to support the front office, nearly all manufacturers can leverage Industry 4.0 to evolve the business.
Have a manufacturing story to tell? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.