President and Chief Executive Officer, Protolabs.
The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is well underway. The future of manufacturing is being embraced and demonstrated by the companies that differentiate themselves from the pack by incorporating technology to advance economic and environmental sustainability. Crucial to this evolution of manufacturing is the implementation of smart automation and connected processes that provide transparency but also self-monitor to maintain quality products in accelerated time frames.
Companies pushing Industry 4.0 use technology innovations that empower companies to make intelligent, real-time, data-based choices. This has proven to be especially important during the Covid-19 pandemic, when disrupted supply chains and an increased urgency to produce PPE-related products underlined the need for speed and agility. We have also learned that we can be better prepared for the events beyond the pandemic that will continue to cause material shortages and disruptions worldwide. 4IR-powered manufacturing has and will continue to prove its mettle, providing on-demand flexibility during turbulent times.
Automation Equals Agility
The goal for any company following 4IR principles is to automate as much of the manufacturing process as possible. We started with that as a founding concept over two decades ago, and today, the digital thread that makes this possible is active from end-to-end, from the initial upload of design requirements (e.g., CAD files and drawings) to automated manufacturing analysis and quality control. Implementation of automation and Industrial Internet-of-Things (IIoT) technologies has increased efficiency and sustainability in digital manufacturing. In turn, customers get rapid product iteration, increased speed to market, supply chain risk reduction and more. That is the essence of 4IR-awareness.
Covid-19 underlined the need for 4IR manufacturing capabilities, as companies often needed to pivot at a moment’s notice. Starting in the early days of the pandemic when parts from abroad were stalled due to political- and supply-related issues, we learned volatility in traditional supply chains would require companies to depend on suppliers that can provide rapid iteration and delivery.
For example, a longtime customer makes a product that dispenses mist disinfectant via a handheld wand. When demand for the product spiked during the pandemic, the company realized it needed to distribute a protective cover for the wand’s nozzle. The company pivoted from its offshore provider to U.S.-based digital manufacturing to fill the need in days instead of months—a move that paid off for the company and its customers.
Digital Manufacturing And The User Experience
With digital manufacturing, online user experience is crucial. One of the first places where a user experiences manufacturing automation with 4IR-suppliers is during their quoting and buying experience. A connected manufacturing experience allows you to understand the price implications of materials, lead time, manufacturing processes and quantities in real time, followed by a quote delivered in minutes or hours, not days. A 4IR-powered quoting process reduces a user’s time spent waiting for a response.
From there, the CAD file is run through a digital twin of our manufacturing process where we virtually mold, machine or 3-D print the part, in the end creating a digital twin of the part. The automated system allows us to provide accurate, interactive design for manufacturability (DfM) analysis, which highlights issues in part designs before production starts, ensuring parts will arrive on spec for the final design.
This accuracy and speed is vital. When an emerging wearable technology company recently learned an overseas injection molding supplier would be offline for at least a month, they pivoted to 4IR-powered digital manufacturing, sent over a CAD file and received DFM feedback in hours. A prototype was delivered two weeks later. The fast-paced startup was able to avoid significant interruption.
Moving To The Production Floor
As the automated processes continue, the digital twin provides instructions for the machines on the production floor. At Protolabs’ injection molding facility, for example, toolpathing instructions flow through the system as G-code and are sent directly to the machines, increasing throughput and accelerating time to production. Toolpathing for milling and for inspection take place concurrently, and automated inspections reduce time and cost while ensuring quality and consistency.
4IR and Labor
Implementing a 4IR program with all its attendant technological changes can be a very positive benefit for employees. When compared to traditional injection molding, most roles in the manufacturing process change with the implementation of the digital thread and automation. With that, reskilling should be at the heart of your transformation. When building or seeking out such a program, find one that helps your employees perform new, critical roles that help your company maintain its position as a 4IR-capable manufacturer. You can also establish training and development programs to grow future leaders by accelerating their learning of digitally enabled processes, so they can ultimately play a role in helping develop new ones.
Furthermore, 4IR capabilities allow manufacturers to scale our operations faster than we need to scale labor. As our industry continues to experience severe labor shortages, this benefit is crucial for continuing to meet production goals.
The adoption of 4IR technologies is also fueling industry-wide advancements toward sustainability.
Take our nation’s automakers, for example. After decades entrenched in perfecting the internal combustion engine car and truck, they are joining the race to develop electric vehicles. To keep up with the competition and ultimately meet sustainability goals, they are testing and iterating at an incredible pace to develop a fleet of electrified vehicles with new processes and novel technologies. Speed and agility are pivotal in getting to market, meeting launch initiatives, and satisfying investors. Automation, AI and IIoT allow us as manufacturers to meet these timely demands. I hope the list of industries leveraging these capabilities to become more sustainable only continues to grow.
Building An Industrial Revolution
Industry 4.0 offers so much potential to affect how we fuel innovation worldwide. And I think there is a tremendous opportunity to partner with other leaders in 4IR adoption so we can work collaboratively to implement next-level process automation and virtualization, ultimately reinventing manufacturing. We have so much to gain.