Industry 4.0 Offers Creative Solutions for Manufacturing’s Most Pressing Challenges

Industry 4.0 Offers Creative Solutions for Manufacturing’s Most Pressing Challenges

This article appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.

More manufacturers than ever are taking advantage of Industry 4.0 technologies to find solutions for some of their most stubborn challenges. From finding and retaining talent to improving machine and process quality, manufacturing leaders are seeing Industry 4.0 as a vital, long-term investment for the health of the company.

Industry 4.0 can be described as the latest evolution of manufacturing technology, utilizing concepts such as systems integration, data collection and analysis, automation, robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Ironically, taking advantage of Industry 4.0 solutions will have a positive impact on a company’s most important asset — its people.

“Industry 4.0 solutions are focused on creating improvements to some sort of process or maybe it’s a human improvement,” says Troy Mohrland, Vice President at Hyperion Automation. Hyperion is a Holland-based company that provides equipment, technology and training for manufacturers looking to take the next step into Industry 4.0.

Having been in the manufacturing automation world for over a decade, Mohrland has seen the benefits of increased automation, big data and connected systems. And, more recently he has seen the industry leverage Industry 4.0 to address the ongoing talent crisis, therefore adding even more benefit to these technology-backed solutions.

“Of course, companies want to see the ROI of that up-front investment, but it’s not just the money that’s a positive outcome,” says Mohrland. “Technology can also free up people’s time. There’s really a multi-factor gain that happens.”

Using Industry 4.0 to Address the Talent Crisis

Sandalwood Engineering and Ergonomics is a company that helps manufacturers solve tough problems through data analysis and implementation of technology. Developing data-based insights into day-to-day operations has become especially important as companies are seeing more and more reductions in their workforce, according to Mike Vitek, Director of Systems Engineering at Sandalwood.

“Many of our clients are struggling to maintain the right mix of technical talent,” says Vitek. “Introducing new products, or simply trying to solve normal production problems becomes a challenge when experienced resources are not available. We’ve found that certain Industry 4.0 solutions can provide unique insights.”

Implementing software like an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or a Material Requirements Planning (MRP) system can address complex challenges on the shop floor and elsewhere in the company. But, when it comes to people, leaders need to be willing to try something new and embrace these kinds of creative solutions, says Vitek.

Mohrland says it often takes going through that initial project for leadership to understand the long-term value of Industry 4.0.

“Getting through that first project, whether that be implementing a new ERP or leveraging data to make an equipment improvement, that’s usually a big first step,” says Mohrland. “Once you do get through there, you’re just really opening the door to realize more efficiencies and process improvements.”

What about training? Training can be a huge undertaking because it takes up company resources and your people’s time. While vital to creating a skilled and safe workforce, it will ultimately create downtime and lost productivity if you have to pull somebody from their station for a day or more.

Vitek says we’ve reached a point where virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) can play a vital role in improving the quality and speed of worker training, thus having an impact on the skilled labor shortage.

“The hardest part for manufacturers right now is finding skilled labor,” says Vitek. “There are technology solutions that can help with that issue. Can we use augmented reality and virtual reality to train workers faster?”

Ultimately, the goal of Industry 4.0 is to make improvements to the human element, which is the most important asset of any manufacturing company, says Rob Simmons, Director of Business Development at Sandalwood.

“The more advanced the application that you’re working with, the more you have to go beyond the technology and look at the humans involved,” says Simmons. “We’re very big proponents of creating human-centered designs and systems.”

Industry 4.0 can also be looked at as an enhancement to the workforce. Manual, repetitive jobs that can be replaced with a robot will allow you to repurpose workers for more value-based roles.

“Nobody’s out there to get rid of people, it’s an opportunity to allow people to do something of a bigger value or to learn a new skill,” says Mohrland.

For example, industry-leading companies like Bosch have developed software engineering internship programs based on the extreme need for people who can program and operate the machines. Taking advantage of Industry 4.0 concepts means manufacturers can create efficiencies and improve operating output all while upskilling their workers to prepare for the future.

Improving Quality and Versatility

Data analysis can also have a significant impact on your existing workforce and logistics. Providing the right solution for any particular challenge and/or desired outcome can take many twists and turns from improving Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) and Overall Labor Effectiveness (OLE) to implementing more efficient systems for moving parts and materials around the shop floor.

According to Simmons, the inventory of solutions available when it comes to Industry 4.0 technologies is limitless.

“The list just goes on and on and on,” he says. “The capacity is out there to cover all aspects of digital transformation.”

Manufacturers place a premium on machines that are flexible, and that has only been amplified in the wake of continued supply chain disruptions.

For Mark Hendel, Global Sales Director at the Lansing-based IMPCO Microfinishing Systems, it’s all about being agile.

“The biggest keyword we’re hearing from manu-

facturers is ‘flexibility,’” says Hendel. “Manufacturers want more flexible product on their shop floor. They don’t want to be locked in with a machine that’ll only do one part type. They want a machine that’s going to do two or three part types today with the possibility of doing more in the future.”

IMPCO has been producing microfinishing machines that improve the roundness and quality of metal parts like crankshafts since 1937. The company has a legacy of being an industry leader in traditional engine crankshaft finishing, however they have also evolved with the marketplace and with the dynamic needs of their customers.

IMPCO’s continued technological evolution has focused on making better, more flexible equipment. Processes and production may have to change constantly based on the availability and quality of the raw materials, and companies like IMPCO — which make and implement vital production equipment — have to be prepared for that.

“We do the initial design with a high level of flexibility within the process,” says Hendel.

Industry 4.0 concepts can be a problem-solver for internal processes that are producing underwhelming outcomes. A common challenge that manufacturers face is developing more systems integration across their departments to increase efficiencies. Vitek says that manufacturers need to have an understanding of their current limitations and opportunities for improvement.

“There are typically a number of challenges happening and they are likely interconnected,” says Vitek. “Companies are trying to collaborate across different boundaries; they’re trying to find the right technical resource and they’ve got data everywhere. They’ll need technology solutions to bring that all together into one place.”

Rate of Adoption

Having been in the automation world since 2005, Mohrland sees the rate of adoption for Industry 4.0 as “slow” considering the amount of technology that’s available. However, he believes Michigan can be at the forefront of this new wave considering the state’s long history with automation and applying cutting-edge technologies to the manufacturing process.

“I guess I’m Michigan proud but it’s kind of known as the automation capital,” says Mohrland. “I think there are just tons and tons of good resources available and a lot of skill here.”

At Sandalwood, they call this adoption “climbing the pyramid.” Vitek says there is a lot of education and research that should take place before a company decides on a particular solution.

“The hard part is being able to pick and choose which technology is right and can be beneficial across various applications,” he says.

For example, if a manufacturer has its own MRP system, rather than look for an upgrade or a new feature to the existing technology, finding solutions that manage “processes and workflows” can create efficiencies and a better working environment for those on the shop floor.

“We’re looking at ways to actively track issues related to the movement of materials on the floor and in the supply chain. We’ve found that we can use low-cost social media-like solutions for that,” says Vitek.

Reaching this point of adoption can be challenging but not impossible even for legacy companies like IMPCO. The company is over 85 years old and is credited with building the world’s first automated crankshaft 75 years ago, yet they continue to listen to the needs of their customers and evolve.

“What we do is very customer-driven,” says Hendel. “We work with the big OEMs and really the specifications of our machine tools are driven by the customers.”

Now that the industry is running headlong into the EV markets, IMPCO is adapting to meet the new market demands.

“EV definitely seems like the next evolution for road vehicles. Well, of course, we have to move with the times,” says Hendel. “We’re still supporting the crankshaft world, but we’ve started doing development work on electric vehicle components, transmission components, rotor shafts, rotor assemblies and other EV-related materials.”

What’s the ROI?

When considering a new investment in technology, the first and probably most important question is: What’s the ROI? Mohrland says talking about the rate of return is a good way to speed up the adoption of a new process or system.

“There are definitely companies scared to make that up-front investment but, once you start working up the ROI calculations, then it starts to make sense,” says Mohrland. “In a lot of cases and solutions out there, I see manufacturers realize their return on investment within a year or less. I think that’s pretty low risk overall.”

So, no matter what kind of challenge you’re facing, it’s likely there’s a technology-based solution out there that requires an upfront investment but will produce a beneficial and long-term ROI both on the bottom line and within your workforce.

Because, while these solutions may be digitized in nature, the ultimate goal is to improve processes and the work environment for humans. Whether you’re considering an ERP system to create more communication and efficiency between departments, or if you’re eying a robot to perform strenuous, manual labor — your humans will thank you for it. 6

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