Industry 4.0: people at the heart of the smart factory

Big data, cobots, augmented reality... the 4th industrial revolution is underway! But make no mistake: ‘Factory 4.0’ is about a lot more than just technology. It also requires us to rethinking the way we work, the way we organize work... and the place of humans in that organization.
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  • Smart, agile manufacturing
Technologies that serve people
Smart, communicating and connected, Factory 4.0 brings with it new and increasingly targeted and personalized production methods. The arrival of the IoT (Internet of Things) and Artificial Intelligence are also transforming careers and demanding new skills. So how do we take best advantage of these new technologies? Will people be like every other robot?

Since the 18th century, the world has known three industrial revolutions: mechanization, mass production and automation. But now, in the 21st century, the 4th industrial revolution is beginning to take shape: the revolution of robotization. Welcome to Factory 4.0!

For several years now, production plants have been engaged in a process of transformation as they integrate digital technologies into their systems. According to a KPMG survey, the global market for new manufacturing technologies is expected to be worth $320 billion by 2020 (up from $200 billion in 2019). What we are seeing is much more than evolutionary change: this is a profound transformation. 

Smart, agile manufacturing

Communicating sensors, IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), smart data... The arrival of digital technology in production processes is making manufacturing smarter and more agile. Now interconnected, machines are constantly communicating with each other and exchanging information in real time. This smart dialog is designed to give a further boost to performance and competitiveness. According to Saint-Gobain Senior Vice President Manufacturing, Performance and Technology Benoit d'Iribarne: “The resulting applications are many, and include real-time production monitoring, automated alert systems, predictive maintenance and manufacturing acceptance optimization.” 

One example is the use by Adfors - a Saint-Gobain Group subsidiary specializing in fiberglass-based reinforcement solutions - of artificial intelligence-based software to optimize operation of its furnaces. The benefits of doing so include fewer resources used, lower costs and improved product quality. Better yet, manufacturers are now able to leverage their data to target customer expectations and adapt to meet their needs in real time. It’s all about ultra-customization!

Say hi to the cobots

But it would be a big mistake to see the factory of the future as no more than a technological adventure. It’s certainly important to digitalize production lines and review information systems. But that's not nearly enough. By reshuffling the cards of the production process, Industry 4.0 facilitates new ways of working. So what’s the problem? The fear that people will be replaced by (smarter) machine tools. Is that a realistic fear? Yes. And no! Because Industry 4.0 isn’t designed to replace people with robots, but to make their tasks easier. 

For a good illustration of this people/machine partnership, we need to look at the collaborative robots known as ‘cobots’. The point of this approach is to combine human creativity with the accuracy and speed of robotics to enable operators to delegate certain repetitive tasks to machines, leaving them free to focus on missions that add greater value. 

People, data... and training!

The major challenge in the coming years will therefore be to train a more qualified workforce and support employees as they upskill, particularly in the use of new technologies. In one of Sekurit’s German plants, a digital academy has delivered training to 80% of the labor force, with particular emphasis on Industry 4.0 programs.

People remain, and will continue to remain, the keystone of tomorrow’s manufacturing industry, while machines will be used to optimize efficiency. Reinventing tomorrow's careers means enabling everyone to acquire new expertise that allows them to interact with information systems and make productive use of data. Because data are the new ‘black gold’ of industry. Gathering data is one thing; understanding and exploiting data is quite another! And only human intelligence can do that.

Industry relocation and digital twins 

Industry now faces many challenges as digitalization promises greater and greater personalization. In the Netherlands, for example, Saint-Gobain subsidiary company Gyproc delivers prefabricated plasterboard to construction sites, pre-cut to size and pre-assembled. The result is faster, cheaper construction projects that generate much less waste!

And the use of digital twins radically changes design and production phases. These virtual replicas of a product or piece of equipment make it possible to simulate a range of scenarios as the basis for making the right design choices, testing all kinds of parameters and properties (heat resistance, compression resistance, etc.) without committing or altering the production. The gains in time and performance are undeniable!

In the same way, 3D printing is revolutionizing manufacturing, offering multiple possibilities for personalization and short production runs of one-off machined components. 3D printing also holds out the promise of lower inventory and costs. But most importantly, it seems to offer a real opportunity to bring production back to a regional level. 

So ultimately, Factory 4.0 could become the standard-bearer of a virtuous industry in response to consumer expectations for more local and responsible production. 

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