September 10, 2018 – The emergence of Industry 4.0 and the IIoT, or the Industrial Internet of Things, is causing equal levels of excitement and concern. Most manufacturers I visit have heard about its potential and are aware of the building hype, but don’t know how it will affect them specifically. Depending on a person’s age, the opinions vary from one extreme to the other, with a healthy percentage of indifference. There is often fear associated with it – and like all fear, it is caused by uncertainty and lack of knowledge, fuelled by myths and speculation.
If you are close to retirement, you may be inclined to be indifferent, believing it will be the next generation’s problem – or opportunity. If you are in the middle of your career and working on the plant floor, you may fear it might eliminate jobs like yours in the future. And if you are in management, you might be concerned that the new technologies may obsolete or displace your skills, or require you to learn new ones. It seems to me that the more one group of people get excited about the potential of these new technologies, the more concerned and worried the other group gets.
So, let’s pop the four myths I see and hear as most prevalent.
Myth #1: “The technology is only applicable for new machines, not for old and ‘legacy’ equipment.” This is notion is completely false and is often perpetuated by companies seeking to sell new equipment or expensive software or consulting services. The truth is that old machines are often far easier and less complicated to connect than new machines. As an example, I have seen machines built in 1928 connected, “as is,” without modification or upgrade, for less than $1,000. Although newer machines come with more connectivity options built in, often those options require proprietary software that is either costly, or that creates data islands for the newly purchased machines.
Myth #2: “The IIoT will eliminate people.” While it’s true that technology does eliminate some jobs, it also creates new jobs, and in many cases actually helps protect jobs by helping companies remain competitive with low-cost regions. Properly applied, technology should do more than that – it should also improve the working experience. The purpose of IIoT technologies should be to engage workers, not to eliminate them. (The purpose of most internet technologies is to engage people – the more people engaged by a platform or website, the more successful it is deemed to be. The same measurement objective should hold true for the IIoT.)
Myth #3: “Data is complicated and requires a sophisticated skill set.” If this is true in your situation, you are probably measuring the wrong things. The most important information is the information that lets you see which of your systems and processes are healthy, and which ones are not, and this information is usually very simple to extract, and equally simple to compute. For example, a doctor may see 50 patients in a week. By just taking three measurements from each one (pulse, blood pressure and temperature), he or she will know which 47 patients are healthy and which three require far more attention. The same is true on the plant floor. Simple run time, stroke count and defect count will let you know which processes are healthy, and which ones require more attention. For the ones that require more attention, you and your people already know the symptoms that are evident. It then becomes a matter of measuring and analyzing those things empirically, automatically and in real time.
Myth #4: “Big brother is watching.” This is the one I hear most often on the plant floor, but it’s a notion very easily dispelled. The fact is that management already knows the performance of a plant, person or machine, just perhaps not in real time. The only people that don’t know how well they are doing most often are the people actually doing the work. This may have been acceptable for our current workforce, but our emerging workforce – i.e. young people who have grown up with constant real-time feedback – needs the real-time feedback to remain engaged. Properly devised and deployed, IIoT technologies provide relevant, meaningful and engaging information to people. The information may come from a machine or sensor, but its ultimate purpose is still to inform, empower and equip people.
Paul Hogendoorn is president of FreePoint Technologies. “Measure. Analyze. Share. Don’t forget to share.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.