For years now, industrial automation has provided a reliable competitive advantage for businesses willing to invest in new technology. But with the Industry 4.0 revolution underway, automation is no longer an advantage; it is an essential service every business needs to stay viable.
In the Industry 4.0 economy, businesses who field an integrated suite of mechanical and smart automation systems will be well-positioned to succeed. So what is industrial automation? And what will this new era of automation look like?
What Is Industrial Automation?
Industrial automation is the use of computers, information technology, robotics, and integrated mechanical controls to improve the efficiency of industrial processes and better control the quality of end products. The global market for industrial automation services is expected to reach nearly $288 billion by 2026.
Nearly every contemporary industrial automation system is monitored and operated by a connected computer. This computer can be built into an individual device or it could be a central, networked management system. Sensors connected to the computer monitor a specific task. Actuators—mechanical or digital tools—take action based on information collected by those sensors and analyzed by the computer.
Industry 4.0: Tomorrow’s Competitive Landscape Has Arrived
“Industry 4.0” is the nickname for the fourth major industrial revolution currently underway. Its hallmark is the use of smart automation systems and Internet of Things (IoT) devices to perform an ever-increasing number of industrial and manufacturing tasks.
Industry 4.0 businesses are also looking to connect automated systems to create more and better feedback loops that allow them to optimize every operation. Eighty-eight percent of businesses in the industrial sector have either started integration or automation efforts in at least one business unit or have plans to do so.
Key Principles of Industry 4.0
A few key design principles set Industry 4.0 technology apart from the previous generation of industrial automation.
Interconnecting IT and OT
Information technology (IT) provides information processing capabilities for connected people and technologies. Operational technology (OT) automates physical operations. In previous eras of industrial automation, these technologies were more segregated.
Now, industrial automation systems look to connect IT and OT systems in new ways. Identifying profitable ways to integrate these different technologies is one method businesses can use to generate new competitive advantages in the Industry 4.0 economy.
Smart systems can make many decisions on their own using machine learning and AI tools. Endpoint devices can adjust their performance without input from central computer systems or human workers.
This capability reduces the need for central oversight over routine work. Emergency response efforts also become more efficient when a smart system can trigger a shutdown on its own.
Industry 4.0 automation enables more and better data collection. Data can be analyzed by onboard or remote computer systems and converted into useful, actionable business intelligence.
Small, wireless Internet of Things (IoT) devices can be deployed in locations that were not suited to wired automation systems. These devices allow you to receive information about areas of your business that were formerly “in the dark.”
Industry 4.0 analytics make human work easier and safer. Computer systems may be able to gather mountains of data and run analytical programs in seconds, but they’re still terrible at complex problem-solving and decision-making. Those tasks still require human minds to be in charge.
Types of Industrial Automation
So what does industrial automation look like in practice? Automation systems can be divided into three types: fixed, programmable, and flexible. All three types can be part of integrated systems.
This is sometimes called “rigid” or “hard” automation. These systems can perform one type of repetitive task, without error, for an extended period. Once a fixed system is deployed, it usually cannot be modified to perform a different task without an extensive overhaul.
Fixed systems are best suited for repetitive tasks as part of a consistent, high-volume production process. For example, a robot arm is programmed to mount a single type of automotive part on an assembly line.
Programmable automation performs one task for a certain period until a condition is met, and then switches to a different task. Programmable automation is most useful when the scope of work may vary, but is still very well-defined.
For example, after an automated system punches a certain number of parts from a plastic sheet, it stops punching and swings in a different mechanism to sort the parts into batches. Operators can reprogram these systems, but that can still incur significant downtime.
This is also called “soft” or “smart” automation. Like programmable automation, these systems can switch between different tasks. However, flexible automation systems can monitor their performance and modify it according to different criteria.
Smart control systems are an example of flexible automation. They are capable of performing multiple, simultaneous tasks in response to human and system input. For example, smart asset lockers can scan and verify the contents of a returning equipment kit, notify maintenance technicians that an asset needs repair, and schedule a new kit reservation for the staff member returning the equipment.
Integrated systems are multiple component systems networked together. Any of the three automated system types above can be part of a wider integrated system. For example, a smart locker system integrated with a real-time location solution together can track equipment and staff around a worksite.
Key Advantages of Industrial Automation
Understanding the ways automation can improve industrial operations will help you decide which solutions make the most sense for your business. Smart industrial automation systems offer:
They can operate faster and for longer than human workers. Automated systems aren’t bound by the speed workers can move. They also don’t require shift changes or lunch breaks.
Industrial automation eliminates excess human labor. Per unit production costs drop significantly.
They are capable of more reliable, consistent performance than human workers. Automated systems don’t make mistakes when they get tired. They don’t forget important safety checks.
Eliminating human error in many industrial practices also improves worker safety, Automation can prevent day-to-day accidents and injuries as well as catastrophic failures.
While there are numerous advantages to smart industrial automation, it is not without its downsides. Before you undertake an Industry 4.0 digital transformation, take the time to familiarize yourself with the potential pitfalls that come with deploying new automation systems.
Need for Increased Network Security
More networked automation in your organization means more “attack surfaces” for hackers to target. Even if a less-important device is compromised, a skilled hacker can use that toehold to launch new attacks at more critical targets. Knowing the risks that different automation systems might pose to your network security program will help you deploy those systems in the safest way possible.
Industrial automation can pose more than just technical problems. It can also create human resource problems.
By design, automation replaces human labor. Human workers won’t disappear in the Industry 4.0 era, but they will need to be shifted into different, often higher-skilled, positions. This is a disruptive process both for businesses managing these transitions and for individual workers who see their occupation transformed, and oftentimes relocated.
Worker training and assistance programs can help make Industry 4.0 as safe, comfortable, and beneficial as possible for everyone.
Higher Up-front Costs
While they do save money in the long run, smart technologies can require a significant capital outlay. Don’t be too hasty picking new automation systems. Take the time to develop a full migration plan that aligns with your business goals.
That migration plan will inform your buying process. It will help prevent unnecessary expenses, failed system launches, and bad blood between management and workers.
Increased Maintenance and Technical Support
Automation technology may be more efficient than manual labor, but it doesn’t last forever. When you deploy an automated system, you will need to deploy new maintenance and support routines along with it.
Fortunately, this is one area where displaced workers can move into higher-skilled occupations. You can transform this need into an opportunity to aid those workers.
Industrial Automation Is the Foundation of the Future
So what is industrial automation? For many businesses, it will be the foundation on which they compete in the Industry 4.0 marketplace.
Mobile device management is an important aspect many businesses overlook in planning their digital transformation. Automated asset management can give you the competitive advantage you need to push your business into the Industry 4.0 era.
About the Author
Vice President of Marketing
Jay oversees marketing and strategic partnerships at Real Time Networks and has over three decades of experience in leadership roles in the financial services and technology industries.