Industry 4.0 – Opportunities for Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises

“Industry 4.0”, “cyber-physical systems” or the “Internet of Things” – the paradigm shift in the production economy is cheerfully progressing under various names. What they all refer to is the digitization and networking of production processes and environments.

The idea is by no means new. The difference is now there are technologies that offer a level of precision, speed and flexibility to a previously unknown degree. In large companies, for example the automotive industry, these processes are already offering enormous efficiency and diversity. In future, these companies will set the pace for numerous supplier industries – and thus take “Industry 4.0” to small and medium-sized businesses. It is precisely here that the attractive potential for value generation needs to be made visible and concerns and fears assuaged.

One important aspect is, although we may always refer to an “industrial revolution”, Industry 4.0 is far more about an industrial “evolution” that demands tailor-made solutions. Production measuring technology and sensor technology are key tools on this path. Global mega trends such as resource efficiency, mastering new process technologies, greater flexibility and transparency exert a strong influence on the production industry. The requirements and customer preferences companies must address are growing: diversity, personalization of products, correspondingly small batch sizes or the desire for seamless documentation – these issues require answers if a company is to be successful in the market and remain competitive in their location over the long-term.

Large companies that have consistently invested in the automation of their production processes can now expect optimised machine capacity utilization, rapid production times and a low number of rejects. They are able to react promptly to changes in the market and to produce small product series at low-cost. This is made possible by the intelligent networking of systems, starting with order management and material administration, and on to the management of production machines, automated control and quality assurance.

Production or measurement technology plays an essential role here, it provides the high-precision data that the intelligent factory requires. Whether it is the position, the surface properties or the integrity of production pieces – via recognition by means of intelligent measuring systems, data can be gathered and numerous subordinate processes triggered. For example, data gathered from the manufacturing process will ensure that the early subtle wear and tear of tools can be identified with the help of measuring instruments.

With a system of “predictive maintenance” counter-measures can be taken promptly and automatically. This saves raw materials, reduces rejects, cuts maintenance and service costs and optimizes lead times. If all information flows are connected optimally with one another then the production process is launched into the system as soon as the order arrives. This steers and optimizes the complete process chain automatically, from material flow to the ordering of individual parts and on to packing and despatch. Ultimately, it is the workpiece that instructs the production line on how it should be worked. This way, the development of the value-creation chain is turned completely on its head, it leads away from the central management and rethinks the manufacturing process entirely.

In global competition, this also means that wage-intensive locations can benefit, particularly from the automation of production processes by means of cutting-edge production technologies and embedded systems. Smart factories create products that remain competitive on a global scale thanks to a high level of quality, individuality, efficiency and speed – and thus help to tap into new markets.

New opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises

These developments are increasingly having an effect on small and medium-sized businesses. They open up opportunities to be present and act quickly and flexibly in a volatile environment.

Intelligent measuring and evaluation systems are an important key here. It is optical processes and components in particular that play a big role when it comes to the digitization of production processes, since they supply comprehensive information about product quality, promptly and readily. With increasing automation, measuring technology can be incorporated ever more thoroughly in to the production process. Data is available not just following laborious measurements in the measuring room, but can flow into the networked system immediately. Comprehensive measuring processes boost transparency in production, but require suitable software solutions and compatible interfaces that make communication between the systems possible.Intelligent measuring technology that can be integrated straightforwardly into the existing IT infrastructure can be an important signpost in the direction of Industry 4.0. Optical systems score points for their speed and precision, with carefully considered interfaces in what is almost a “plug-andplay” process they can both measure as well as supply data for further processing. Be it for an “early-fail” diagnosis or to generate a faster, more precise improvement process through the continuous feedback of relevant information from production to product development or to tool and testing equipment construction. Further possible applications involve, for example, prototype construction or reverse engineering and product development, thus products can be developed so that they are better suited to the production process or suppliers can be enabled to produce components with adaptations to suit specific requirements.

Intelligent systems can enable the development of quality assurance measures that are already heading, step by step, in the direction of digitalized production, even if an existing IT structure does not yet permit full flexibility. Investment costs can be adjusted step-by-step to relevant requirements along the entire value creation chain.

Reshaping working environments

Automation will change the workplace structure within the company. In fact, the question of the precise impact – including the effect on the labour market – cannot yet be answered definitively. Certain trends are nevertheless taking shape, monotonous routine tasks or activities that can be risky to health, or burdensome when carried out by people, are increasingly being executed through automated processes or with the help of robots. Here, collaborative robot systems offer an entirely new form of cooperation between humans and machines. Intelligent assistants ensure a high level of reliability and productivity – which strengthens companies operating in wage-intensive locations and helps to secures jobs. A further plus point, if employees are relieved optimally by means of automated solutions, is that it  creates more freedom for areas of work in which their creativity and efficiency is required – areas such asthe development of new products, services or processes.

Even Industry 4.0 will not succeed without human labour when it comes to overseeing the automated processes – but the “how” is set to change. For example, the control elements for managing the machines will become much more important. With their user-friendly interfaces, they ensure that processes run intuitively and can be controlled safely. The latest generations of control elements can be designed to be so highly flexible that technicians and measuring and software experts will be able to use them with the utmost precision. Current human-machine interfaces, for example, make use of the properties of user interfaces from entertainment electronics. If these learnt structures are integrated into areas of work, then they help employees with the application and can boost motivation and the willingness to assume responsibility. On-going further training measures will make a key contribution to a company’s success in future. Yet with user-oriented control elements, for example, labour and overall costs can be reduced considerably.

Automation solutions

  • Can take over dangerous, monotonous or strenuous tasks
  • Operate in areas not fit for humans
  • Increase productivity and help secure wage-intensive locations

Measuring specialist for perfect-fit solutions

On the path towards Industry 4.0, experts in measuring and imaging technology can offer solid support. When it comes to entirely individual and bespoke solutions in quality assurance and automation, FARO, the specialist in measuring technology and imaging processes, can offer a comprehensive portfolio and a wealth of experience.

FARO deploys high-precision instruments both for tactile and for non-contact recording of objects – whether by means of visual imaging procedures, tactile measuring arms or laser scan technology. In addition, there are various software solutions to enable both communication between all measuring systems and interfaces to all common software applications. Measuring data is recorded quickly – where required also in multi-sensory mode – and optimally prepared for further use. This reduces complex programming tasks and cuts costs for system integration.

FARO uses these competence building blocks to develop individual solutions directly tailored to the requirements of its customers – from individual building blocks through to complete solutions. The newly launched business area 3D Solutions & Services specialises in working together with the client to find freely configurable, rapid and cost-effective measuring and automation solutions in order to support companies on the path towards Industry 4.0.

“We offer a strong knowledge and exchange platform, both for big and small or medium-sized firms”, stresses Markus Grau, Director of Product Management 3D Solutions & Services. “Our goal is to bundle the whole range of competences and thus create the best possible individual measuring and automation solutions for our partners that are more than just ‘state-of-the-art’”. The systematic further development of application solutions within FARO, for example, as well as the interdisciplinary cooperation in a network of research institutions and businesses, ensures intelligent innovations suitable for practical use.

The FARO Robo Imager is one example of the possibilities the combination of optical measuring systems and a collaborative robot arm offers. Various measuring tasks are being successively integrated into production, as a mobile measuring station alongside the production line, for example,the Robo Imager reduces the need for laborious measuring in the measuring room. As a fixed installation, it enables continual quality testing next to the manufacturing line, and can support the automation process down the line. Intelligent interfaces ensure that the data gathered can quickly be made available for further use in all common software applications.

“In quality assurance, measuring is a standard – for the automation process, it is an important building block”, explains Markus Grau. “Only intelligent measuring technology makes it possible to ensure seamless operation along the fully automated process chain. The key to success lies in the communication and interaction between the systems”, says Grau. “And we’ve got just the response to these demands.“

For more information: www.faro.com