Industry 4.0 goes by many names – Factory 4.0, the fourth industrial revolution, the industrial internet of things (IIoT) – but it represents the same principle: substantial increases in data and analysis leading to optimized manufacturing and decision making for engineers throughout the product chain. The end result is a more efficient allocation of resources and higher profitability than before.

Epitomic productivity starts on the factory floor, where there is a flood of valuable data, which is absorbed by smart sensors, connective machines and human-machine interfaces. Instruments record physical measurements and deliver them as digital records, on everything from stock, to machinery operations, personnel decisions and facility logistics. Data acquisition is the ignition to Industry 4.0.

This massive accumulation of data — “big data” — is typically sent to cloud storage. From there, computers process the data with software like AI or machine learning. These programs compare the data against itself, similar processes and potential alternatives. It can then make suggestions throughout the manufacturing and supply chains, potentially increasing productivity. Recommendations can range from machinery maintenance, to manufacturing realignment, to increased automation, to different warehousing strategies, to innumerable other ideas. Any step or stage where enough data is gathered for a comprehensive analysis is reconsidered.

Data analyzed in the virtual environment also serves as testing ground for the physical world. Engineers can make digital changes to a facility or a product, run simulations to estimate the impact and then implement ideas that translate into real-world efficiencies. Coupled with advances in rapid prototyping, product design iterations and models are available in a few hours, a process that prior to Industry 4.0 could take weeks or more.

Figure 1: In a glimpse of the cyber-physical reality created by Industry 4.0, a worker remotely checks and alters machine performance from a remote device. Source: bobo1980/AdobeStockFigure 1: In a glimpse of the cyber-physical reality created by Industry 4.0, a worker remotely checks and alters machine performance from a remote device. Source: bobo1980/AdobeStock

Gradually, sensors have been integrated into final products as well. This helps manufacturers track their products once they are in the hands of customers, for purposes of analyzing usage and quality. Manufacturers can leverage this feedback to create more functional or reliable product redesigns and increase customer satisfaction.

There are further benefits for customers as well. The manufacturer’s detailed, IIoT-powered record keeping provides supply chain traceability, ensuring that customers are getting the correct materials from trustworthy suppliers and partners. In some cases, customers can track their orders in progress, helping them coordinate with the supplier for delivery. Additionally, organizations are increasingly making some of their data available to prospective customers to help them make product decisions. A good example are suppliers who publish component CAD files along with the online catalog. Designers download these files into their modeling program, where they can plug-and-play and make product discovery decisions in moments, not months.

Industry 4.0 is making waves in the welding industry, too. Welding was formerly tough to quantify, and the industry relied on the skill and experience of fallible humans. Welding management software, paired with sensors and instruments to capture the welding data, provides a real-time, quantifiable measurement of weld quality, from human and robot welders. For the latter, production changes can be made across all of a shop’s machines from a central interface. Additionally, welding plans can be updated instantly based on job quality and throughput. If a problem arises with a weld later on, the data provides insight into how the problem originated.

Nonetheless, challenges remain for Industry 4.0 adoption. It is difficult to implement on a scale that provides business-changing results, in both effort and expense. Industry 4.0 may cause a sea change in manufacturing employment. There are significant cybersecurity and privacy concerns from such widespread data gathering. Standards and legislation are currently to be determined.

Yet it is clear that Industry 4.0 cyber-physical systems represent the future of manufacturing, with important advantages for the welding industry. The benefits vastly outweigh the interim challenges, and soon enough it will be the de facto standard of product design, creation and delivery.