Industry 4.0 & IIoT: SMEs — Don’t let the hype consume you

“Industry 4.0 will increase your productivity”

“Implement the Industrial Internet of Things or you will be left behind”

“Early adoption of the 4th Industrial Revolution is your next competitive advantage”

They’re all along the same line right? Tech articles, promotion material, research and advisory boards — all humming the tune that a train is leaving the station and if you’re not on board you’re in a whole lot of trouble. The thought of missing that train produces panic. And panic results in poor decisions and regretful actions.

The truth is there is no train with an imminent departure, no switch that has been flicked or line drawn in the sand. We are simply doing what we always do — we are innovating and continuously improving. Don’t get me wrong, Industry 4.0 and other related terminology (saved for another post) definitely have their place. They describe a direction for our innovation, and they give us a high level understanding of the technology we are implementing so that we can close the gap between the mindset of those making the strategic decisions and those acting upon them. So the point of this post is not to slam industry terminology (I use most of it daily myself) but rather to say: “Breathe. It’s ok. Everything will be fine.”

Recently I was in a meeting in which a number of manufacturers were discussing Industry 4.0 related topics and there was a recurring theme from each of them — they thought they were behind and they wanted to act. They wanted to do something immediately and implement Industry 4.0 in their factories. What does that even mean — implement Industry 4.0? Well they had answers for that — it’s IoT, edge computing, fog computing, the cloud, collaborative robots, blockchain *sigh*, machine learning, etc, etc. These things are not Industry 4.0, they are technologies, and I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but this species of ours has become pretty damn good at implementing technologies over the last several hundred years or so. The fact that these manufacturers were aware and engaging in dialogue about relevant modern technologies indicated to me that they had inadvertently already taken the first step, and were much further along the journey than they may have realised.

My point is simple — if you are innovating, aware of the industry around you, and have your eyes open to technology, then you are already on the path of Industry 4.0 — it will happen. Small wins in the innovation game to make your factory smarter (through automation, data-driven gains, real-time metrics, etc.) are obvious stepping stones to the ideal “smart factory” fostered by Industry 4.0. Of course caution is still required around how you obtain this low hanging fruit and which technology you use, but answers to such things are revealing themselves and the basic act of keeping yourself informed will ensure you don’t miss out.

Some companies are already following this trajectory. For those that aren’t, focus needs to go towards broad initiatives like creating an innovation culture and driving continuous improvement. Don’t spend your time seeking what defines Industry 4.0, let the big players do that. You didn’t define the standards that became the backbone of automation for the previous “revolution”, so don’t do it this time either. Be the implementers, and spend your time simply seeking value for your business.