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  • Writer's pictureDaymon Thompson

What Does Industry 4.0 Really Mean?

As manufacturing speeds headlong into digital transformation, familiarity with relevant terminology keeps all stakeholders on the same page to succeed in new technology implementation

Glidewell Industry 4.0 factory
Using Industry 4.0 principles, Glidewell Dental's smart factory makes lot-size-1 prostheses with cloud-connected machines.

Manufacturing continues to undergo rapid and incredible change, and sometimes it’s difficult to keep up with the relevant lingo. A term I’m often asked about is Industry 4.0, and it’s one I really enjoy explaining in a practical context. But before I get to that, it’s important to first talk about digital transformation. Because at its core, that’s what Industry 4.0 is about.

Digital transformation is a term everyone in the automation world can throw around in conversation, but no one defines the same way. This can lead to confusion and frustration, so let’s get any misunderstandings out of the way now. A short definition I often use is:

Digital transformation in manufacturing involves strategic and active implementation of various technologies to maximize revenue, reduce costs, increase product quality and variety, and enhance production flexibility.

Within this broad umbrella, digital transformation encompasses many levels of scale and sophistication. The bottom line is that it needs to improve your business in a meaningful way.

There are numerous use cases at any level that can generate positive change. Some use cases include making better, data-informed decisions on where to focus when optimizing production assets, increasing workforce productivity and tracking overall efficiency/effectiveness. The current digital transformation in manufacturing includes the shift to Industry 4.0 production concepts.

Industry 4.0 – the Fourth Industrial Revolution

TwinCAT programming software in industrie 4.0 application
Hyphen's cloud-connected Makeline is an example of creating customer-specific orders using cyber-physical systems.

The First Industrial Revolution involved mechanical production using water or steam power. The Second was the introduction of electric-powered mass production in assembly lines and the like. In the 1970s, the Third saw the rise of electronics such as PLCs to replace solid state relays and IT for increasingly automated production.

Now, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, aka Industry 4.0, is based on highly connected, customizable and localized production using cyber-physical systems. To put it simply:

Industry 4.0 focuses on flexible manufacturing that can be profitable anywhere. It is the idea of being able to accept numerous digital orders, place the orders into ERP system and trigger the required manufacturing processes to create that exact product down to lot-size-1.

The product could (or really, should) be customizable at the point of order. Perhaps it’s a custom size, configuration or color. The manufacturing line should be designed in such a way – mechanically, electrically and software-wise – to accommodate lot-size-1 production. To be clear, that means the machines should be able to make a one-off product that might never come down the line again.

On the management side, the production lines send data back to the enterprise or other higher-level systems for analysis to ensure continuous improvement. The data can include:

  • Production statistics – how well is the system running?

  • Maintenance needs – either cycle-based as the simplest option or more intelligent condition monitoring/predictive maintenance.

Industry 4.0 manufacturing line
From production machinery to higher-level software, creating a more connected ecosystem is critical to successfully implementing Industry 4.0 concepts.

Isn’t Industry 4.0 the same as IoT/IIoT?

Short answer: no. In the U.S. especially, digital transformation, Industry 4.0 and IoT/IIoT are often lumped together and used interchangeably. Many people think they mean the same thing. They do not.

Industry 4.0 relies heavily on connectivity, in some cases cloud connectivity to machines and devices. That connectivity, on its own, would be considered IoT. Therefore, Industry 4.0 requires IoT technologies, but Industry 4.0 is much bigger than the one aspect of this connectivity and telemetry data. It’s like multiple pieces of a puzzle and can also utilize AI/machine learning, advanced motion control, mechatronics and much more.

Beckhoff is helping customers realize Industry 4.0 concepts with adaptive automation technologies. Let’s define the term, adaptive automation, too: it indicates operational technology (OT) that can adapt to changing production requirements on the fly, often through convergence with solutions from the IT realm, and in some cases include technologies such as machine learning. The eXtended Transport System (XTS) and XPlanar are changing the way OEMs can design flexibility into machines. ELM series high-end measurement terminals and other I/O technologies enable finer data collection and measurement, including detailed tracking of machine conditions and power usage.

As an end-to-end engineering and runtime platform, TwinCAT 3 automation software provides the flexibility to talk to nearly all industrial equipment, enterprise software and cloud services. EtherCAT provides another layer of connectivity, accommodating a vast range of industrial devices from many vendors, as well as gateway solutions that can connect to legacy protocols, other industrial Ethernet systems and cloud services. As previously stated, connectivity is key to Industry 4.0 technologies, so TwinCAT and EtherCAT really deliver here.

Digital transformation on the shop floor, throughout the supply chain

Digital transformation can take place at all levels of a business. From production machinery to higher-level software, creating a more connected ecosystem is critical to successfully implementing Industry 4.0 concepts. Because of the open and universal connectivity of PC-based control, we have helped engineers across industries implement impressive lot-size-1 production lines. Here are just a few from various industries:

Honeywell Intelligrated AS/RS system for Industry 4.0
Honeywell Intelligrated created a scalable AS/RS solution that reacts to customer orders with shuttles and goods-to-person/goods-to-robot picking stations.
  • Glidewell Dental: The California-based company’s AWS cloud-connected factory runs 40 mills that produce patient-specific products, with each order being traced from raw material to finished prostheses.

  • Nobilia: Europe’s largest kitchen cabinet manufacturer delivers more than 3,000 custom kitchens per day with automated order processing, production, inspection and storage inside the factory.

  • Honeywell Intelligrated: The prominent intralogistics technology company supplies connected AS/RS and sortation equipment for e-commerce companies, which can deliver multi-item, custom orders to operators or robots at modular picking stations.

  • Hyphen: Disrupting the food-service industry, this Bay Area company developed a modular makeline that allows consumers to place fully customized restaurant orders online that are prepared in a fully automated way, allowing restaurants to make 350 meals per hour and scale for peak times.

There are countless other examples, and the digital transformation doesn’t have to stop at the factory floor.

At Beckhoff, we work primarily with machine builder OEMs and system integrators on their ambitious Industry 4.0 implementations. However, management can use data from the production floor to improve processes, such as creating new efficiencies across multi-site operations or forecasting long-term material needs. This could even involve automatically ordering components based on current production levels or the rates of order placement and warehouse shipments.

Industry 4.0 can often feel like an overused buzzword, but it signifies a very powerful opportunity to rethink manufacturing and make it better. By leveraging adaptive automation technologies, engineers can create a solid basis to set up their factories for digital transformation.

Interested in making Industry 4.0 concepts the real deal in your applications? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


Daymon Thompson

Daymon Thompson is the Software Product Manager for Beckhoff Automation LLC.


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