Industry 4.0 for Small to Medium Enterprises (SME)
When industry 4.0 is mentioned it typically conjures images of drones flying around an enormous warehouse or factory that is able to operate autonomously. Names like Apple and Amazon come to mind. Industry 4.0 experts that discuss the topic in blogs and on social media often discuss the topic from a top level, citing improvements, measures and benefits that are only applicable to large, global businesses. It can be difficult for SMEs to see adopting an industry 4.0 approach as anything other than an unnecessary cost, especially when they are managing perfectly well as things are.
This is the main reason why “SMEs are still a long way from fully exhausting the potential of digitalisation,” according to Dr. Jörg Zeuner, chief economist of KfW Group.
So how do smaller businesses adopt industry 4.0 in a manner that works with their budget and operations? The answer steals the punchline from the old joke ‘how do you eat an elephant?’ Piece by piece.
According to industry 4.0 expert Ben Hope, SMEs should look to identify where industry 4.0 can add value to their business, making the technology work for them rather than it being just another expense for a bit more insight.
Condition monitoring is a good first step into the fourth industrial revolution. Being able to keep tabs on the performance and state of your autonomous machine parts e.g. the cycle-time of a valve can allow you to begin to predict when a part is in need of repair of replacement. This can allow manufacturers to conduct the repair during off-peak hours, instead of getting a nasty surprise when the part fails and production grinds to an unwanted halt. Predictive maintenance is a useful way to begin to digitise a smaller business without making committing to wholesale changes.
Highlighting process weaknesses is another key industry 4.0 element that can add value to an SME. Smart sensors can highlight wasted time and energy. Receiving true, accurate data, businesses can make improvements to processes based on what they know their processes are, not what they simply think or believe them to be. These insights can prove to be invaluable and help streamline a business which in many cases, can improve profitability.
Energy usage is another baby-step into the digital revolution that SMEs can make relatively simply. They may already be aware of how much total energy their processes take from assessing energy bills and meters. Smart energy sensors can determine how that energy is being used. This can often surprise businesses who may not have realised which machines were absorbing so much energy. This can provide the data to change process and machine scheduling. Perhaps rescheduling the use of energy intensive machinery to coincide with period when energy is less expensive. Alternatively smart data can highlight the possibility to stagger machine usage so that power surges aren’t created. Energy optimisation is another manner in which SMEs can begin to make industry 4.0 work for them.
Regardless of the size of a business, from the largest to the smallest, there is value to be had from starting to implement some industry 4.0 processes. They key is making them work for you.