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Industry 4.0 and the Smart Shop Floor

Eric Miller
By Eric Miller President, Miller Fabrication Solutions

The industrial revolution of today, called Industry 4.0, is driven by the interconnectedness of advanced technology, automation, robotics, and real-time data, also called the Internet of Things (IoT). While these cyber-physical systems can autonomously exchange information to trigger actions and make decentralized decisions, it’s impossible to dismiss the importance of the human element in manufacturing.

Physical systems combined with real-time data assist workers in producing the highest-quality products, solving complex challenges before they become problems, and ensuring safety. Is your custom metal fabricator equipped to leverage the IoT to support your needs?

OEMs need supplier partners that capitalize on the latest revolution of automation and robotics. Equipment and systems that are connected and can “talk to one another” create vast improvements in manufacturing processes. The availability of advanced, connected technology provides opportunities to deepen relationships between manufacturers and their customers and suppliers. Suppliers become true strategic partners with the right technologies that support production efficiencies to reduce cost and improve on-time delivery.

Regarding the Industrial IoT, Bill Ruh, chief digital officer for General Electric, said: “It’s a huge opportunity for all industrial companies. Data analytics and machine connectivity are the way to get to the next level of productivity.”

While the focus appears to be on the advancements in connected technology, the IoT is less about technology and more about data, and how OEMs and strategic partners use the data to inform decisions to improve quality and productivity and reduce downtime. The OEM benefits in its ability to focus on product innovation and fulfill customer promises.

Creating a Smart Shop Floor

The advanced technologies that monitor machine operations, gather data, and make decentralized decisions work in concert with employees to create what we call a “smart shop floor.” Ensuring the quality and reliability of products and processes, a smart shop floor may include the following elements:

Predictive maintenance. Sensors can monitor equipment during uptime and provide vital data to indicate potential issues or upcoming work or repairs that need to be made. This data assists teams in planning for required maintenance to avoid unnecessary downtime, reduces maintenance costs, and increases the availability of the machine. When equipment goes down outside of planned maintenance, strategic partners risk completing projects on time and potentially delaying scheduled projects.

A couple of examples of predictive maintenance include oil sample analysis and vibration monitoring. Sampling oil from machines enables teams to monitor everything from dirt and water in hydraulic systems to ware metals such as copper brass to determine if a component in the system could fail.

Vibration monitoring allows maintenance teams to examine bearings and other parts while the machine is in use. Through a combination of these types of condition evaluation technologies and others, repairs or preventive maintenance can be properly scheduled during off hours or non-peak time frames.

Predicting potential electrical failures can be difficult. Thermal imaging helps teams visualize how mechanisms are heating or if parts are not running at normal temperatures.

The data provided through predictive maintenance technologies can be invaluable. Supplier partners can focus time and energy on maintaining equipment based on predicted maintenance events before a problem causes a breakdown.

Machine sensors and transmitters. Sensors and transmitters enable machines to monitor internal processes and send alerts when a problem or potential problem arises. Standard sensors provide limited information about machine diagnostics. Smart sensors, on the other hand, offer advanced functionality for automated machines that support regular maintenance, as well as troubleshoot potential problems.

OEM fabrication partners should be equipping welding and fabricating machines with smart sensors to detect when material is running low. This allows the machine operator and the materials handling team to receive an alert and act. Rather than stopping the machine and waiting for new material to arrive, additional material can be delivered before the machine runs out.

The data gleaned from smart sensors offers virtually endless opportunities to not only reduce downtime but to improve overall productivity and product quality. These smart sensors can also be programmed to detect smoke, noise, VOCs and other conditions to strengthen safety efforts.

Remote monitoring and signals. Lean manufacturing isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. As such, it’s imperative to have the right tools and materials at the right time to operate most efficiently. Remote sensors ensure employees have what they need when they need it.

For example, remote monitors and signals are being used to detect when materials or parts need to be replenished. When materials or parts are running low, an alert can be sent to personnel (or a drone) to restock the necessary parts, supporting an efficient parts flow.

Real-time quality and safety data. Access to real-time quality and safety metrics helps employees do their jobs more efficiently and addresses issues before they become real problems that could impact product quality or on-time delivery to customers. The most accurate data informs proactive, intelligent decisions.

Monitors with dynamic dashboards tracking key performance indicators can be placed throughout plants, providing all employees with immediate access to data. The availability of real-time data enables employees to see performance against productivity targets, quality metrics, and safety information.

The article, “Why Manufacturing Needs Real-Time Data Collection,” addresses the valuable information from the factory floor that is used to improve operational performance. However, the data, provided in real time, goes far beyond improving productivity.

“Real-time machine tool data collection isn’t just about helping manufacturers improve productivity and profitability, although that’s certainly a promised outcome,” Senior Editor Patrick Waurzyniak writes in the article. “It’s also an essential first step toward a data-driven, high-tech manufacturing sector that is globally competitive.”

Don’t Lose Sight of Security

While it’s easy to get caught up in what advanced technology and connected systems can do for your company and your customers, it’s imperative to consider security implications for the same reasons. The more connected your company is, the more vulnerable you are to security threats. Unfortunately, some companies may be at greater risk than they are aware.

“While connected technology drives innovation in the manufacturing sector, it also creates new challenges,” says Brian Raymond of the National Association of Manufacturers. “One of the primary targets for a cyber-attack inside the manufacturing ecosystem is industrial control systems that help manage the shop floor.”

Undoubtedly, a strategic partner with advanced automation and robotics provides a competitive edge for OEMs. However, it’s imperative to have a clear understanding of how security is managed throughout your supply chain.

When your partners assess new technologies, ask questions. How will the technology benefit your product and your customers? Will the technology enhance the quality of the work? Will delivery times be impacted? And, with more integrated systems, are there processes in place to ensure security from a proprietary perspective for your OEM business?

Investing in cybersecurity is a must. A few security processes your tech-focused fabrication partner should have in place include:

  • Network monitoring by security appliances for inbound and outbound traffic;
  • Advanced endpoint threat detection;
  • Third-party verification of security processes to identify vulnerabilities and reduce the potential for security problems; and
  • Regular training for employees on topics, including phishing attacks.

The IoT is transforming manufacturing in innumerable ways. Connected systems provide real-time data, enabling manufacturers and their strategic partners to enhance productivity, product quality, and processes like never before. Your metal fabricator should be leveraging the IoT in ways that will propel its business and your business forward with constant awareness of and plans to mitigate security risks.

Eric D. Miller is president of Brookville, PA-based Miller Fabrication Solutions, a strategic partner offering metal part manufacturing and value-added solutions for global OEMs across oil and gas, mining, material handling, construction equipment and other industries. Miller is the third generation of leadership for the family-owned business. Learn more about Miller Fabrication Solutions by visiting

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