The 4th Industrial Revolution, or simply Industry 4.0, has put smart, digital manufacturing as the new operating standard, making it further challenging for SMEs to compete against companies with larger economic and technological resources.

The flux of information streaming towards manufacturing managers and operators makes it difficult for them to follow and effectively analyse results in real-time in order to make prompt, effective decisions. In addition, staff often lacks the ability to examine the entire manufacturing process and improve on its planning and execution.

Such difficulties can be highly significant especially in light of the modest margins that production facilities typically face. Every improvement in the manufacturing process and every percentage of savings in raw materials or other resources can significantly contribute to a factory’s bottom line.

Obtaining and maintaining customer satisfaction is another area of constantly increasing competition. Manufacturers are required to comply with constantly rising quality and customer service standards, with clients expecting full transparency and visibility into the manufacturing process, as well as production flexibility, prompt delivery and innovation. Delivering on these components can often make the difference between manufacturers winning business or losing it to their competitors.

To meet these core essentials as well as the various stakeholder-specific needs, SMEs require manufacturing management systems that improve their current capabilities and allow them to better compete.

What benefits can SMEs gain by implementing Industry 4.0 solutions?

1. All processes are monitored

Managers must know what’s happening on their manufacturing floor and know it now. Looking at last week’s manufacturing reports is simply not good enough. Successful companies have already adopted digital platforms that provide them with Real time Operation Intelligence (RtOI), which provides managers and operators with an immediate, complete and ongoing stream of information about their manufacturing processes. For example, most manufacturing managers mistake their machine efficiency by up to a whopping 30 percent when asked. Ongoing monitoring of manufacturing processes allows managers to identify problems as they occur and take corrective action.

2. Manufacturing processes are optimised

Once problems are pinpointed, they can be fixed immediately but the benefit of Industry 4.0 technology is that manufacturing decisions can be proactive and not just reactive. Learning from identified problems can help managers implement solutions that optimise processes and find the exact areas where resources, including energy, can be maximised.

3. Waste is eliminated

Small, unnoticed inefficiencies can result in energy waste that builds up over time. For example, tracking manufacturing cycles with a digital manufacturing platform can reveal stoppages that accumulate to several hours per shift. Fixing these deviations in planned processes can cut energy use and help lengthen the life of machines.

4. Procedures and practices are more easily established

A digital manufacturing platform can help solve problems or optimise processes in order to create real changes. Beyond the daily improvement that these platforms can offer, however, the accumulated know-how and experience should evolve into work standards, practices and procedures that allow the company to comply with regulations and directives. Implementing a significant change becomes infinitely easier when all manufacturing processes and personnel are aligned through a central standardised platform.

5. Employees are more involved, empowered and committed

Despite common fears, implementing automated processes does not make human involvement redundant. In fact the opposite is true. When done correctly, digital solutions in manufacturing environments empower employees and allow them to become a part of the company’s bigger picture. Implementing procedures and practices, and gaining employees’ commitment to them, can often be highly important on issues that require a joint effort, like complying with energy efficiency directives.

SMEs who want to remain competitive should consider implementing Industry 4.0 tools and solutions within their manufacturing facilities, and the sooner the better. Today, it is not a question whether they should or should not but rather one of now or later. Plug-and-play tools that are non-intrusive to manufacturing facilities and don’t require heavy investments in infrastructure are currently available and can facilitate a quick, painless and beneficial leap into the era of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Amir Aloni is an expert in digital manufacturing and production management, and the founder and CEO of LeaderMES, a smart digital manufacturing platform that allows users to apply digital transformation to their manufacturing environment