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Manufacturing needs to adapt to the new digital world order. The best way to do this is to focus on equipping frontline workers with the right tools.
That was the message from panelists at Operations Calling Tuesday, a user conference sponsored by connected worker software provider Tulip and held in its Somerville, Mass., headquarters,
The transformation promises of industry 4.0 are being thwarted by the "incestuous relationships" of enterprise vendors within the industry, said Walker Reynolds, chairman of Dallas-based systems integrator Intellic Integration and president of digital transformation education program 4.0 Solutions.
Industry 4.0 is the application of advanced technologies such as AI, advanced analytics, robotics, automation and IIoT on manufacturing to improve productivity accomplished with better efficiency.
Industry 4.0 should be centered on solving manufacturers' problems and helping frontline workers solve those problems, Reynolds said.
"They may not articulate the problems in the same way that the C-suite does, but it should be about solving those problems through enablement," he said. "Often times, it's too much about serving commercial relationships that are competing directly against optimal organizations."
The pseudo rise of industry 4.0
Ten years ago, vendors talked about industry 4.0 in manufacturing as a revolution, but the reality hasn't lived up to the hype, said John Dyck, CEO at Clean Energy Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute, a Los Angeles-based, government-funded organization focused on accelerating the adoption and democratization of smart manufacturing technologies.
"This fourth industrial revolution is a huge misnomer, as manufacturers don't do revolutions," Dyck said. "They don't think about being on the bleeding edge. This needs to be an evolution."
U.S. manufacturing productivity rose sharply about 10 years ago. It subsequently plateaued and began to decline five years later.
"We're talking about reshoring, friendshoring and regionalizing supply chains. But we have declining productivity, and we're putting lipstick on a pig," Dyck said.
A large part of this stagnation is that manufacturers have created too much technical debt by implementing systems that are inefficient and aren't easily integrated, he said. These more monolithic systems have value in a less-connected environment but are a drag in a IT world that's more connected and open.
Disconnect between new tech and old processes
The main problem holding back the promise of Industry 4.0 has been that integration has been point-to-point and linear. Manufacturers are not investing in innovation like open systems, Reynolds said.
The cost of investing in modern systems has outweighed the perceived value. But advancements in manufacturing platforms allow better and faster integrations. They are democratizing the skills needed for operations technologies, he said.
There is a disconnect between the advanced technology products that are being made and the outdated processes and technologies that continue to be used, said Gilad Langer, head of customer services at Tulip.
"That disconnect boils down to risk-averseness," he said. "There's a lack of understanding about what advanced technology can do in a plant, and nobody's willing to take that first step."
Fulfilling the industry 4.0 manufacturing promise won't be easy, and it won't be solved simply by adding new technologies or systems, the experts agreed.
The most important step is not to embrace the technology first but to embrace the frontline worker, then the technology, Reynolds said.
"The difference between the most transformative and the least transformative organizations can be distilled down to one thing: How enabled are the frontline workers to solve their problems in the service of solving the business's problems?" he said.
Arm the rebels
The U.S. manufacturing workforce is one of the world's most expensive, but it is not given to tools to make improvements, Dyck said.
This is the result of siloed systems that are supposed to make manufacturing jobs easier but too often hinder them instead. Highly complex systems designed to help line managers make decisions exist, but frontline workers themselves are not typically involved in those decisions.
"We have not created the environment, the culture or the technologies that can get to that point," Dyck said.
Walker ReynoldsChair, Intellic Integration
Unlike rivals such as Germany, the U.S. manufacturing mindset has been individualistic, Dyck said. While this has provided a path to success for some companies, a more collaborative and open approach will be the key to a productive industry 4.0.
"IT figured out how to do this two decades ago, and virtually every IT developer is paid to contribute to open source and collaborate," he said. "They trust, and that's how we got plug-and-play and interoperability in IT. We have to get there in the OT community."
A more successful industry 4.0 depends on organizations being prepared to be digital, Reynolds said. Executives should ask themselves if they are equipped to lead a digital organization in the future and leave if they decide they are not.
"If you're not an executive, go to the highest-ranking person you can find, and ask them what our digital strategy is. If they don't have an answer, you know what your problem is," he said. "You then have to create your own digital strategy and solve your problems."
This bottom-up approach is the way to success, Langer agreed.
"Start now if you have a problem you can solve with digital tools," he said. "Essentially it's arm the rebels. And once have results and can show executives that you solved the problem on your own with no money, they cannot ignore that."
Jim O'Donnell is a senior news writer who covers ERP and other enterprise applications for TechTarget Editorial.