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Sheet Metal Companies are lagging behind Industry 4.0 - and for a good reason!

Sheet Metal Companies are lagging behind Industry 4.0 - and for a good reason!
Process improvement is the missing piece in industry 4.0

Automating your factory is hard. If you've ever tried to modernize your systems and become a true Industry 4.0 factory, chances are you've encountered some setbacks along the way.

Why do so many digital transformation projects fail? It's because high-tech solutions are not reaching manufacturers quickly enough. As a result, most manufacturers are left with outdated or inaccurate information.

So, what can you do about it?

Some market leaders have found success by joining collectives to share knowledge, others have worked more closely with universities instead of vendors, and my preference: working with an independent consultant to move things forward based on modern technology.

But there are a few things you should know about the industry in any case. 

In this post, we'll examine how it's possible that so many fabricators are still lagging on Industry 4.0 and what we can do about it in the years to come.

The factory of 2025

When you look through various magazines or research reports, you quickly suspect that most companies are already thriving in the fourth industrial revolution. 

(For clarity, that's a company that leverages AI, Big Data, Machine Learning, and Robotics to a significant extent and can predict trends, make better decisions, and automate day-to-day tasks.)

Do you recognize that in your business? 

One such report predicted that 40% of established industries would be replaced by digital disruption by 2020. Well, 2020 has passed now, and how many of the metalworking businesses have been disrupted so far? I bet that number is negligible, even considering how Covid has affected the world.

Shocking articles will do great for getting magazine subscribers to read further and browse through the ads, but they don’t explain to you the how and why. Many marketing stories are often written to impress the competition. Surprisingly, there are not many companies leading the pack as an industry 4.0 factory.

Don’t get me wrong! 

I am a huge enthusiast and interested in these latest techniques, and writing about them is a great way to share the state of the industry. I am confident that the new generation of production techniques will come out of the industry like a tornado.

The Industrial Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, and Robotization will definitely have a huge impact on our work, but it all depends on how we open up the right use cases for them.

If we take a closer look at the production companies, we can see exactly why the attitude of the operators here is much more pragmatic than the reporting suggests. This is mostly thanks to the robust and dynamic collection of different services.

Although manufacturing companies can vary considerably in terms of size, processes, and customers, they all have certain characteristics, such as increasingly complex supply chains, production processes that remain in the company for decades before being replaced, and the need to avoid production downtimes at all costs.

In my view, manufacturing is about what you do, not necessarily how you do it - or how beautifully it is done. The how this secondary, as it mainly depends on achieving the desired result in the long term.

If an idea is too theoretical, it's understandable that often it's not immediately welcome.

The innovation gap

There is a large innovation gap between the theoretical predictions and the people who are actually employed in the workplace.

What's between the high-tech solutions and the manufacturers? Typically, legacy vendors. Large software companies that are not agile enough to keep up with the latest developments and own many intellectual properties in the market.

And then there are the professionals who don't work in industrial environments every day - from policymakers to academics to consultants - who are unlikely to fully understand the complexities of the challenges that can arise in moving to a digital factory.

Until recently, executives working in information technology (IT), manufacturing, and actual operational production worked almost separately. This is particularly noticeable among the larger machine manufacturers, who sometimes add many new functions to software products while leaving the main functions behind.

The result is that to date, there are only a few specialists who have both the technical expertise in production companies and at the same time can bring the necessary IT knowledge to the forefront.

As long as we can't close this bridge, the manufacturing industry won't be able to drive innovation. And there is only a very limited number of specialists available. 

I can tell from experience that I would be glad to see more colleagues in the field, doing what I do. But unfortunately, they are very hard to find.

More than technology

The technological component of innovation is the easiest to solve these days. Software development has become more and more accessible to use for any business. Open-source is the future. Integrating can be done quickly through API's and XML interfaces.

What we need is that new achievements should be increasingly shared through research institutes and are more accessible to the manufacturing industry. Because without input from industry, research will not progress, so specialists require the right feedback from the workshop.

The trick is not to stagnate so that we align our new processes with what the customers really require and not be distracted by what the marketing reports say.

The manufacturing industry can only progress if we work together. Once we learn from one another, help our suppliers and customers, and continue to assess our progress, we'll have a great future.

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