Industry 4.0 presents opportunity for some

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I wasn’t the first person on my block to own a smartphone.

I also don’t have one of those fancy thermostats that you can use to change the temperature of your house while you’re still at work, or one of those refrigerators that send you an email when you’re low on milk and eggs.

So I understand the slow adoption of Industry 4.0. There are a lot of bells and whistles available, when it comes to new technology, for plastics processors. But it seems like most are fully engaged with Industry 3.0 right now, and are just vaguely aware of the concept of Industry 4.0.

Perhaps this is a good time for a review. Because although we’ve been writing about Industry 4.0 for three years (I checked the archives), I know a lot of readers still don’t understand what it means.

Big picture, think of advances in manufacturing that started with the industrial revolution. You remember that from middle school social studies: factories started using water power, then steam power, greatly increasing output.

The second industrial revolution saw massive increases in productivity thanks to assembly lines and electricity. The third — and this is where a lot of manufacturers are still focused — saw the introduction of computers and automation.

Industry 4.0, or the fourth industrial revolution, is meant, once again, to bring a major step forward in manufacturing productivity. The term came from Germany, which saw a need to take advantage of its advanced technology in order to compete in the global economy, especially against competition from lower-cost countries.

So what is Industry 4.0? It’s a little more difficult to understand, but basically it’s the advanced use of automation and data exchange in manufacturing. Thanks to advanced controls, sensors and easier-to-use software, machines of all types now pump out data. Everyone involved in keeping a plant running these days has access to all this data, and it can come in handy with things like ISO certification, tracking defects, and even keeping up with equipment maintenance.

But until the run-up to K 2016, I didn’t really understand what that all meant to the future of plastics processing.

Industry 4.0 was a major theme at this year’s K show in Düsseldorf, Germany. We knew, in the months leading up to the show, that many machinery exhibitors would highlight how their new equipment would fit into the trend.

In fact, we devoted most of our second show daily at K to the topic. And we learned not just that it’s a popular topic with German machinery companies, but that it’s becoming a big trend globally, too. Machinery makers in Taiwan touted their Industry 4.0 strategies. Processors in Mexico expressed an interest.

As our reporters fanned out at the show, they collected a wide variety of opinions about what 4.0 meant. And they ran into the term everywhere — at least in the machinery halls.

I got my feet wet on the subject with a story I did on auxiliary equipment company Piovan SpA. It introduced a new product, dubbed Winfactory 4.0, which is a supervisory software that allows its equipment to communicate with primary processing machines.

(As an aside, many companies at K had “4.0” branded products. I’m starting to think we missed the boat by not having “Plastics News 4.0”.)

The company explained to me that with Industry 4.0, a molder can now easily track the entire cost of making a part on a specific injection press — including the energy cost of both the press and all the auxiliary equipment — and compare it to the cost of making the same part on other machines, or in other plants, or even in other countries.

From there, they can compare the performance of different mold temperature controls, dryers, blenders — virtually every manufacturing variable.

New tools, some skeptics

Listening to the explanation, I started to understand why first adopters of this new technology may have a competitive advantage over the slowpokes like me.

If you could know all the parameters of your manufacturing process, couldn’t you optimize them to be more competitive? Couldn’t you then make decisions about where to manufacture products? And wouldn’t that give you an advantage over companies that don’t collect and use all that data effectively?

Still, not everyone is convinced. Our reporters at K found plenty of skeptics. Some think 4.0 is just a buzzword, or they pooh-poohed the concept, saying that their equipment has long had the ability to share information and generate data. What’s really new? Not everyone understands.

Helmar Franz, board member at Chinese machinery giant Haitian International Holdings Ltd., is one of the plastics industry’s deep thinkers, and he was one of the skeptics.

Haitian, which sells two-thirds of its machines in China, put what our Steve Toloken described as a cost-conscious spin on discussions of Industry 4.0.

“With our system partners and with many of our customers, we are discussing a sensible approach to Industry 4.0, and we are weighing opportunities and possibilities, albeit with a sense of proportion,” Franz said.

“Not everything which is already technologically feasible today necessarily makes economic sense for the individual plastics processor,” he said.

He’s right, Industry 4.0 won’t be for everyone — at least not for a while. But isn’t there an opportunity for companies that do buy into the concept, to compete with the many that will not?

Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.