Here's a question for plastics processors: Do your customers want you to invest in Industry 4.0 technology? And if so, what exactly do they want?
I got some good answers to those questions last week at the Integr8 conference in Detroit. The event was sponsored by Automation Alley, a nonprofit that's focused on making Michigan a global leader in Industry 4.0.
Two of the speakers were from companies that not only are major plastics processors but also buy a lot of plastic components from Tier 2 suppliers: Carrie Uhl, vice president for purchasing and supply chain at Magna International Inc., and Elizabeth Griffith, director of engineering for GM Global Interior Systems at Faurecia North America Inc.
They talked about what their own companies have done related to Industry 4.0 to date, as well as advice for firms in their supply chains.
First, how do you get started? Griffith said it has to start with engineering.
"Today, the suppliers that work with engineering seamlessly are the ones that are going to excel," Griffith said. But she was quick to add that companies also need a visionary leader.
Uhl suggested that companies should start by using Industry 4.0 methods for solving an existing problem.
"You need to have a business problem to solve. It's got to have a return on your investment," Uhl said. "There is a lot that small and medium-sized companies can do without a lot of investment."
Griffith offered a specific example: using radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to help make sure that customers don't lose important shipments, like prototype parts.
"Not just the [shipping] box, but the part. So if they lose it, you can help find it," Griffith said. And if you're starting production on a new component, put a chip in the tool that includes all the processing parameters so it can start up right away with zero defects.
Both leaders talked about the importance of collaborating with suppliers and customers. It makes sense; some processors are going to be on the leading edge of Industry 4.0 because they want to be seen as technologically advanced, or they want to make it a part of the company culture. But, like ISO certification, others will wait for their customers or suppliers to require it.
Industry 4.0 may be an intimidating concept, but smart product tracking and digital documentation seem like good places to start, as strategies for improving traceability and decreasing downtime.
If that's not enough to get your attention, consider what Uhl had to say about the role that Industry 4.0 can play in recruiting: Talented young workers want to stay on the cutting edge of technology. When you're hiring, it will help to make your Industry 4.0 strategy part of your pitch.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.