Published on November 23rd, 2017 | by WMG Editor


Digital futures

Mark Swift, Head of our SME Programmes and Robert Harrison Professor of Automation Systems, talk to New Manufacturing about the digital futures and the challenges posed by Industry 4.0.

WMG has always stood for championing innovation that will have a real-world impact in industry. When it comes to Industry 4.0 that mission is no different.

Since its establishment in 1980, WMG has sought to add value to industry through the development of innovative technologies and the fostering of new skills. A department of the University of Warwick, WMG has successfully brought an academic rigour to the tackling of real world industrial problems.

It should be no surprise therefore that WMG is leading research into many facets of Industry 4.0 practice. As an academic department, applied research group, and host of one of the UK’s seven High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult Centres, WMG is instrumental in developing tools and methods to prepare industry for a digitised future. Projects vary from the wholly commercial, in which WMG is funded by a particular company; to matched funded (part government, part private sector) initiatives organised by bodies such as Innovate UK or the Advanced Propulsion Centre; to the research-orientated end of the spectrum where projects may be funded entirely through the national or European research councils.

Professor Robert Harrison leads the Automation Systems group within WMG. He explains that work related to Industry 4.0 typically has either a tight short-term focus and addresses a particular industry issue, or takes a broader perspective – considering future industrial ecosystems more holistically. “For some companies [WMG might look at] enhancements to specific parts of their systems; that might be connectivity to machines and production equipment or enhanced user interfaces, adding some analytics or fault tracking,” says Harrison. “In other cases, some of the longer term research is more around architectures and engineering tools – ensuring the sum of the parts will be much greater through having a smarter, better integrated overall production environment, and linking information and operational systems more coherently and securely.”

Customer demand

One fundamental question WMG seeks to answer is why companies should ‘do’ Industry 4.0. What is to be gained from the end-to-end digitisation of manufacturing processes? Professor Harrison’s view is that companies stand to become more agile, more flexible, and, essentially, more productive. Industry 4.0 is not, as some scaremongering voices might have it, about replacing humans in the workforce with robots. Rather, it is about helping industry to use both its human resources and machine assets more efficiently.

“You may not necessarily see increased automation replacing people; the result may well be better informed people who can make better decisions,” he continues. “Automation is one facet of Industry 4.0, but it is just one facet. It’s about dynamic responsiveness, making what the customer wants when he wants it; configuring a product in a more “joined up’ way to deliver a better experience; and being more adaptable to change to allow faster response to customer demand.”

Whilst Industry 4.0 has ramifications for all sizes of manufacturing businesses, the way it is applied will differ between OEMs, Tier Ones, SMEs and smaller supply chain companies. Naturally, different businesses are of different scales and are variously equipped to integrate Industry 4.0 technologies. Whilst Professor Harrison’s team typically works with large companies – automotive OEMs such as Jaguar Land Rover, for example – WMG also considers how smaller businesses might integrate aspects of digitised manufacturing.

Digital connectivity

Dr Mark Swift is the Chief Technical Officer of WMG’s branch of the HVM Catapult and is also responsible for the Group’s work with SMEs and supply chain stakeholders. His team of 25 looks at how small businesses might, realistically, benefit from incorporating technologies around digital connectivity and the Internet of Things.

He admits that the world of Industry 4.0 can be bewildering for a small business, but argues that thinking about the topic in terms of getting better value from data and connectivity can offer a sensible way forward. This is really about connectivity across a business and its supply/value chain,” says Dr Swift. Ask how you can exploit the data you have or how you can create new data to enable you to do things that you haven’t been able to do before. From the perspective of a small business it’s important to start with the data that you have – that will give you all sorts of insights into what you could or should be doing and where you should focus your assets.”

Of course SMEs typically will not have the resources to replace existing manufacturing equipment with the shiniest, off-the-shelf, Industry 4.0 ready kit. Fortunately, retrofitting machines with some form of connected sensor can be done for relatively little expense and disruption.

Greater visibility

For example, a recent project saw WMG work with a manufacturer of industrial racking. The company had a great deal of legacy equipment on the shop floor but wanted greater visibility in understanding the time traps and bottlenecks in its production processes.

Replacing the existing equipment with new machines would have been impossible and not necessarily cost effective even if it were achievable. Instead, WMG fitted sensors (built using the Raspberry Pi computing platform) to a number of machines. Results were instant and provided data on which the company could act to improve its efficiency. “The company thought a piece of equipment was being used around 60 per cent of the time, but we could prove it was more like 25 per cent,” explains Swift. “Importantly the machine tool was wearing out much faster than thought. From this information the company was able to alter the preventative maintenance schedule so the machine tool wouldn’t wear and they could get a higher throughput through the machine.”

“Data is the new oil,” remarks Swift. “If you can extract it and make a piece of equipment have higher utilisation because you know the real throughput rate, it makes you much more of a flexible business.” Given that one tenet of Industry 4.0 is transparency and communication throughout the supply chain, it is important that the development of future manufacturing systems is itself not siloed within companies. “There’s a need to work together across the supply chain – working together where in the past things might have been separate,” comments Harrison.

“The sharing of data and payment for products delivered dynamically, adjusting logistics and other aspects of manufacturing requires quite a bit of integration which is both technically challenging and perhaps has implications on the business models of companies working together.”

Sharing information

Companies can, understandably, be wary about openly sharing information fearing that it may give advantage to competitors. However, in many cases, visibility can work in a business’s favour. Swift recalls an example in which WMG encouraged a company to put a webcam on a machine as a relatively low-tech means of seeing that it was operating at a reasonable throughput. The feed was published on the company’s web page. “The strange thing was they started to get enquiries from other companies who could see the process in action rather than just a photo,” says Swift. “If you start to open up information it can be an opportunity to increase credibility and show you can do things in an efficient and credible manner.”

Swift and Harrison agree that educating industry about the potential of digitised manufacture is incomplete. This view is supported by a 2016 IMechE survey that found 56 per cent of UK engineers had “little or no understanding of the term Industry 4.0.”  WMG has an ongoing role to play in making the manufacturing sector more aware of the benefits of Industry 4.0 practices.

From Harrison’s perspective, education is a matter of making a positive case for Industry 4.0 that cuts through some of the media ‘noise’ around the concept. “In the past [companies] didn’t see the need for integration because they did not see the potential improvements around greater visibility and responsiveness in the production system,” he says. “What is important is having a practical strategy to take forward from the position of any given company to improve connectivity and analysis capability.”

Mark Swift, reflecting on the experience of the HVM Catapult, says that in recent months businesses have been approaching the organisation directly, looking for advice around Industry 4.0. “Within the last six months businesses seem to have become more familiar with the term and what it means for them,” he says. It’s unusual that they’d come saying they had started on a journey to digital manufacture. Rather, they come to us saying they have a problem with a piece of equipment or they see an opportunity to increase throughput but are not sure how to do it.”

Championing innovation

In addition to education, government support for the promotion of Industry 4.0 in the UK is important. “We need to demonstrate these things and show use cases to companies,” asserts Harrison. “There is a strategic working group looking at this and it is obviously important that there is a coherent approach to using the best of what’s available from elsewhere – potentially the US and Germany – whilst looking at what’s appropriate to help British industry.”

Swift too calls for further government funding to be focused on the roll out of Industry 4.0. “We have demonstrators we use to show businesses what digital manufacturing can do for them, but with over 250,000 manufacturing related businesses in the UK there is an urgent need to have a national programme illustrating what you can do with digital manufacturing,” he says.

WMG has always stood for championing innovation that will have a real-world impact in industry. When it comes to Industry 4.0 that mission is no different: through its network of academics and industrial partners, WMG will help business to flourish in the future’s smarter, more connected, more flexible world of manufacturing.

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