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Smarter workers: on the road to Industry 4:0

09 May 2016

The value of Industry 4.0 will only be realised if it is fully embraced by shop-floor workers.

Festo Cyber Physical factory

Industry 4.0 marks the fundamental transition taking place in production environments whereby real world and virtual reality are merging. In this digitised future, information and communications technologies are combined with traditional industrial processes to change the way that production is carried out.

In the production system of the future, entire plants will be digitally linked, allowing the balancing of capacity utilisation across the network. Automatic adaptation of production lines to ordering capacities will be made possible through the simple, rapid extension or reduction of the manufacturing facilities. These new environments will be characterised by closer collaboration between humans and technology, with improved sensor capabilities.

Industry 4.0 is commonly referred to as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ and will be delivered by integrated automation with cyber physical systems. It has gone from buzz-phrase to widespread understanding and acceptance in an astonishingly short space of time. First promoted by the German federal government and used at 2011’s Hannover Fair to describe the conceptual workings of forward-thinking German manufacturing companies, the term is now commonly used to outline the many strands of increased digitisation that will lead to smarter factories and streamlined production. 

The role of people in the success of the digitalisation of manufacturing is absolutely critical. However, in tandem with technical competency, Industry 4.0 also requires a strong focus on change management. One of the biggest obstacles to adoption will be employee reaction and acceptance. If workers are concerned that Industry 4.0 will eliminate their jobs, they are bound to be resistant to it. Huge efforts need to be made to ensure staff understands that Industry 4.0 is more of an opportunity than a threat.

That means managers also need to sharpen their skills. Accepting change isn’t easy for all employees, so leadership skills in change management will be critical. The effective handling of change management will ultimately differentiate between winners and losers in the Industry 4.0 revolution.

Practical training in the use of new technologies can be conducted using Festo’s cyber-physical research and learning platform “CP Factory”. The CP Factory is a modular learning environment that can be used to qualify personnel in the operation of a particular production process or technology. Different modules can be added for the qualification of underlying principles across areas such as assembly lines, fabrication, production planning, quality control, and lean methodologies.

The CP Factory pulls together mechatronics and network formation. The platform replicates the workstations of a real production facility enabling staff to learn how to program facilities, set up networks and optimise many other aspects such as energy efficiency. It can be used to test and develop cooperation between intelligent components, together with their interconnections, under real conditions. It’s where Industry 4.0 starts to come to life and several UK institutes and academic establishments who want to be in the vanguard of Industry 4.0 technology are actively considering the use of the Cyber Physical Factory.

The value of Industry 4.0 will only be realised if it is fully embraced by shop-floor workers. The human operator will remain the key element of modern production, but can expect to be assigned more and more new tasks. Employees on production lines will be required to perform complex decision making, enact swift troubleshooting, and oversee effective preventative maintenance strategies. If Industry 4.0 is to deliver smarter factories, it will need an army of knowledgeable staff.

Industrial control and automation company Festo has been quick to identify the training opportunities that this brings, with its ‘Qualification for Industry 4.0’ approach. The role of the employee within the modern production environment will be transferred from that of machinery operator to fast-thinking problem-solver, requiring new levels of training and knowledge. The topic of education will become a key success factor in smarter industrial environments. For workforces to fully embrace Industry 4.0, performing new and different tasks such as working alongside collaborative robots, they have to understand what it means and know how to make best use of it.

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