By Brittany Willes, writer
The American Mold Builder

In 2019, the manufacturing industry jumped head on into the next industrial revolution – also known as Industry 4.0 – with technology investments totaling $59 billion (US), according to ABI Research.

Manufacturers are embracing technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence, cloud-based simulation and other platforms as a means of replacing older, outdated manufacturing execution systems. Indeed, the level of investment in Industry 4.0 technology is expected to reach a staggering $375 billion by the year 2030, per ABI.

Industry 4.0 today

What does Industry 4.0 actually look like, especially when it comes to moldmaking segments of the manufacturing industry? For many, it means having the ability to track and adapt to situations on the shop floor in real time as a result of data that is collected and measured from machines. This, in turn, leads to a host of benefits for both the mold builder and the customer.

“Industry 4.0 application to mold building – in terms of the machining process, either hard milling or EDM –  requires data from the machine, as well as data from the shop management system made available at the machine,” stated Jim Brown, director of digital technology for Makino. “Machine data allow real-time tracking of the machining process in terms of machine utilization and performance. Alarms or machine stoppage instantly are available to the upper-level system, allowing these problems to be cleared quickly. The visibility of what is happening with production equipment in real time at both the operation and the management levels is a major benefit.”

Real-time visibility attributed to Industry 4.0 technology leads to process efficiencies, as noted by Eric Ostini, EDM product manager for GF Machining Solutions, LLC (GFMS).

“Today, Industry 4.0 technology means improved utilization of machinery,” Ostini stated. “These new platforms have the ability to provide direct data of how machines are being utilized on the shop floor. Analyzing this data shows bottlenecks or other issues in the process that need to be resolved, leading to greater efficiency.”

Fixing or avoiding bottlenecks is not the only way these technologies are able to improve efficiency. According to Michael Thiessen, sales manager for Tebis America, Industry 4.0 also enables the “creation of designed molds that already contain information for programming, structure and applications.” Such molds can cut down on wasted time and resources. Furthermore, “Industry 4.0 utilizes ‘digital twins,’ such as standardized tooling, machines, work holding fixtures, etc.,” said Thiessen. Increased standardization can lead to better process monitoring, as well as improved accuracy and finishes.

“The great thing about these types of systems is that they allow for much more consistent results in the moldmaking process,” noted Gisbert Ledvon, director of business development – machine tool for Heidenhain Corporation. Greater consistency in and of itself is a definite advantage, but the benefits don’t end there.

“Consistency and process reliability are crucial,” said Ledvon. “It means better surface finishes and better accuracy for machining mold components. It means more efficient systems and more predictive maintenance, which prevents unnecessary downtime” – which lead to increased global competitiveness for moldmakers.

In an increasingly global marketplace, it is crucial for companies to be able to keep up with customer demands that require greater numbers of applications produced in increasingly shorter timeframes.

Looking ahead

As noted by ABI Research, Industry 4.0 technologies already are making their mark on various industries. Moldmakers, of course, are hoping to utilize this technology to make their own marks. For instance, GFMS has set several goals for itself in terms of what it hopes to accomplish via Industry 4.0 technology.

“GFMS’ first goal is to provide quicker service to our customers without compromising security,” explained Ostini. “To accomplish this, we use rConnect – a 128-bit encryption portal through the internet from GFMS to the customer’s location. The only way for GFMS to connect to the customer’s machine is by the customer’s password-protected activation.”

In a world increasingly plagued by cybersecurity issues, the ability to remotely access customer machines without compromising security is a crucial advantage.

“Our second goal is to provide all data to the industry,” Ostini continued. Through the use of OPC Unified Architecture – a machine-to-machine communication protocol for industrial automation – on all of GFMS’ equipment, the company hopes to generate all the data points needed to provide necessary information to the industry.

Building on that, GFMS’ third goal is to be a one-source solution provider to the manufacturing industry. “GFMS has a team dedicated to Industry 4.0, which is looking into what our customers want and need,” stated Ostini. “With this information, software systems-related analytic module, predictive module, preventive module and more can be created – if they’re not already in development.”

Naturally, GFMS is not the only company with goals for how to best utilize Industry 4.0. According to Thiessen, as an automatic solutions provider, Tebis plans to use new automation technologies as a means of producing greater numbers of error-free parts, as well as safer processes.

“Our products provide the highest capabilities for automation solutions,” remarked Thiessen. “Utilizing Industry 4.0 will allow us to achieve a high degree of automation principles with integrated simulation of machines for safe processes – ones that already are driven by the design of the mold. It also will allow us to guide the manufacturing process in order to achieve perfect parts every time.”

Tebis’ ability to utilize design-driven automated processes for all manufacturing solutions makes for greater quality, higher efficiency and reduced downtime – something all segments of the industry strive for in order to remain competitive.

Makino likewise is taking advantage of the ability to automate the data collection process. According to Brown, “We are applying Industry 4.0 techniques to provide actionable data to the machining operation. To accomplish this, we are adding analytics to the data collection. The analytics processes the acquired data to alert the operator and/or the management of conditions that are affecting the machining operation. These notifications can be both real time and predictive in nature. Instead of collecting data that must be manually analyzed, the Industry 4.0 data can be automatically analyzed.”

For Makino, the efficiency and quality of operations will be greatly improved by giving the machining operation actionable data already analyzed to reveal possible causes for problems or potential problem conditions.

Avoiding pitfalls

While the benefits are undeniable, no system is without its challenges. The reality is that many shop floors are not necessarily prepared to operate in an Industry 4.0 setting. “One of the major challenges is the ability to connect the machines to software that can perform the data handling,” said Brown. “Many older machine controls have limited capability for interfacing with Industry 4.0 technology.” That doesn’t mean that manufacturers should opt out of investing in new technologies. However, when it comes to investing in Industry 4.0, there are several factors of which moldmakers and other manufacturers need to be aware.

To begin with, companies need to be realistic with their expectations. As Brown noted, “Implementing Industry 4.0 on a large scale can be very expensive. Before launching into the project, make sure the technology can meet your Industry 4.0 objectives. Industry 4.0 is a very broad technology, with many different aspects. Take time up front to make sure the technology you are planning to implement will provide the results you need.”

“Take small steps,” advised Ledvon. “Utilize and connect the equipment within the shop first, and be patient. Furthermore, it is important to be sure the business owner has a thorough understanding of both the technology and how to implement it in his own shop.”

Failing to have a solid knowledge base in this area can lead to many additional, unnecessary problems that might otherwise have been avoided – including lost productivity and profit as the owner and employees struggle to make sense of the new technology.

“You need a key implementer,” stated Thiessen. “Someone from the company needs to be the main driver of standardizing and automating processes. There also needs to be intensive training for that person, the key implementer, to ensure that individual is up to speed on how to automate.”

According to Thiessen, the key implementer should be someone who is very structured, as the process of implementing Industry 4.0 requires “thoroughly planning processes from start to finish before beginning to implement them into the structure. This way the process won’t need to be further adjusted in the future and can benefit the company for many years.”

Ask the right questions

As noted previously, some equipment on the shop floor may not be ready to provide data. In that case, as Ostini advised, “It can get expensive to accumulate a single data point from older equipment.” Beyond the potential expense, there’s also the question of which software/equipment provider to choose.

“When deciding on a dashboard provider, it’s important to find one that will grow with the company,” Ostini continued. This can be difficult to determine at first glance, which is why it’s crucial for manufacturers to do their research before committing to a provider.

Other questions manufacturers should be asking themselves as they prepare to implement Industry 4.0 include the following:

  • How long should the company store the data it collects? Thirty days? One year? Longer?
  • What is the cost of data storage? This could affect how long the company wishes to store the collected data.

Finally, perhaps the biggest question manufacturers need to ask themselves when transitioning to Industry 4.0: What kind of data does the company want or need to be collecting?

“Now that you can get the data, what do you do with it?” questioned Ostini. “What are the analytics you want to explore?”

Finding the answer to this question could be like finding a needle in a haystack, but it’s worth exploring in order to get the most out of Industry 4.0 technology.