If you’re in industrial manufacturing or industrial processes, it’s likely you’ve heard one of the following terms on a daily basis: Industry 4.0, digital transformation, Internet of Things (IoT), Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), smart factory, big data, analytics, cloud storage, digital twins, and IT/OT convergence. But do you know what all of these truly mean to you and your business? Well, if your answer is “not really”, then you’re not alone. These technical innovations are not some abstract “things” out in the universe beyond comprehension but are real and substantial. What follows is an explanation about the technical innovations that enable digital transformation in the context of Industry 4.0 and how all of these relate to industrial manufacturing and industrial processes.

How We Got to Industry 4.0

A good starting point is to review some background about the four industrial revolutions, all of which resulted in substantial advancement in industrial manufacturing and processes. The first industrial revolution started in the mid 1800’s and came about through manufacturing mechanization with the introduction of steam and machines. At the end of the 1800’s, the second industrial revolution occurred when electricity and division of labor with assembly line manufacturing gave rise to mass production. The third revolution started in the 1950’s with the development of electronics leading to computers and information technology. Huge advances were made during this period. We are currently in the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0, which is characterized by smart interconnected environments of devices and sensors collecting and relaying data through the Internet of Things (IoT). Industry 4.0 and all the regional equivalents are truly shaping the world in terms of industrial automation and beyond. Additionally, industry standards play an extremely significant role in digital transformation as the infrastructure for information integration and interoperability.

Industry 4.0 Fundamentals

IoT is key because it refers to physical devices that contain embedded sensors, to software, processing ability, and to other technologies for the collection and exchange of data with other devices or systems of devices mainly through the Internet but also through other communications networks. These smart environments or “smart factories” capture an immense amount of data called big data which can be stored in “cloud storage” and which can then be analyzed by analytics “software”. Cloud storage is simply “available space” on the Internet to store data. This storage capacity is a service you pay for and is provided by companies that manage your data storage, access, and security.

With the ability to store such immense quantities of data, it then becomes critical to apply analytics software to make sense out of this big data. This software finds patterns in the data thus providing visibility and insight into the meaning of those patterns. Another important IoT technology are digital twins. These are what the name implies: virtual representations of the real physical objects or processes. Digital Twins are represented in industrial automation within control systems connected to sensors and actuators with a digital footprint that is typically arranged to optimize command and control of a specific device or machine. Industry 4.0 conceptually brings these objects together into a broader context for insight on the relationship between the array of machine and sensor data required to operate and optimize industrial operations.

And IT/OT Convergence?

Well, IT systems, or information technologies, come from the management information systems area, whether those be in your corporate data center or in the cloud coming from a web service. OT systems, or operational technologies, include all the control systems, the mechatronics, the things that make the things that we operate ‘work’. With the growth of IoT and Industry 4.0 technologies, an increased need to monitor and control automated processes has resulted in an IT/OT convergence to bring these two previously separate worlds together.

IT/OT convergence is the union of data processing and computing power with operational systems to manage and control industrial operations. This convergence is aimed at bringing improvements to technical processes along with a better global understanding of these processes and an increase efficiency and productivity. Now that you know what these terms mean, let’s look at the benefits of these innovations.

Some Significant Benefits of Industry 4.0 & Its Technology

You might be asking why all this talk about IoT, smart manufacturing, and smart factories and the rest? Quite simply – it’s about improved manufacturing and improved operations and processes. Here are just a few of the benefits:

  • Increased operational productivity through increased process visibility and wisdom
  • Increased energy efficiency and sustainability
  • Improved predictive maintenance and maintenance scheduling
  • Increased asset life and reliability
  • Increased employee efficiency and collaboration
  • Decreased waste and costs

With digital transformation comes data-driven insights leading to data-driven informed decisions. This saves effort, time, and money, so your team can focus on continuous improvement to better your products and services, thus improving your competitiveness. When you improve your competitiveness, you improve your chances for success. Let’s look at digital transformation and the integration of its technologies next.

The Integration of Digital Transformation Technologies Is Key to Success

Digital transformation is often viewed as a journey in which an organization automates processes over time using digital technologies, like those explained above. The purpose is to drive manufacturing capabilities to greater heights. As technologies advance, more and better data will be captured and stored to then be analyzed. This will lead to greater manufacturing visibility and productivity. Establishing this technological foundation is particularly important to remaining competitive in today’s market, but the key to success is in the integration of all of these technologies and capabilities.

It is safe to say that pretty much everyone in industry wants to leverage technology innovations. They want to easily enable digital transformation and successfully capture data from a multitude of disparate devices and networks, then transform that data into useful information and push it into the “magical cloud”. Collaboration with suppliers empowers end users with the ability to successfully transform and automate their operations and to connect all their existing devices and networks through new gateways and IoT devices. This allows organizations to leverage data from new and existing devices alike, which can then be turned into useful, actionable information.

Listen to the Experts Who Live & Breathe this Technology

That’s where experts in the industrial automation and digital transformation technology fields are crucial to realizing any such journey. These people live and breathe this technology, so they are well-suited to help and guide you. In fact, experts from four major players in the field [Advantech, CC-Link Partner Association (CLPA) – Americas, Mitsubishi Electric Automation, and ICONICS] discussed this technology and how to go about any digital transformation in our webinar “Demystifying the Technical Innovations that Enable Digital Transformation” which took place on December 9, 2021.

The panel showed the value of how Advantech, ICONICS, and CLPA, working closely with Mitsubishi Electric Automation, benefits the end user community by focusing on data connectivity, information integration, and the power of digital transformation. They discussed smart factories and how programs like the e-F@ctory Alliance are an integral part of a complete solution for digital transformation, while also exploring the enabling components necessary for IT/OT convergence. According to one of the presenters Nathan Smith, Channel Sales Director for Advantech IIoT Group, “As a leader in the IIoT hardware space, Advantech was excited to be part of this webinar to explain and provide context for such technology. Part of what we talked about was how our company and our partners bring device to cloud solutions to automation applications across broad markets.”

Further Your Understanding of Digital Transformation & Its Related Technology

This webinar is a terrific opportunity to further your understanding of digital transformation and the technology that enables it and to learn how to tie it all together through integration. To better visualize how you and your company can begin or continue your digital transformation journey, you can watch the webinar here.

Below are some useful links if you want more information on these topics:

Advantech Industrial Product Overview: https://www.advantech.com/industrial-automation

ICONICS Product Overview: https://iconics.com/Products

Mitsubishi Electric Digital Transformation = e-F@ctory: https://youtu.be/pV8lsoSyEnA

Listing of e-F@ctory Alliance Partners: https://us.mitsubishielectric.com/fa/en/solutions/efactory/alliance-partners

CC-Link IE TSN for Digital Transformation – Follow us on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/clpa-americas/