I experienced the end of the Third Industrial Revolution as I began my career in manufacturing. Closed government and private networks gave way to an open network called the Internet. Numerical Controlled (NC) machines, Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC), and Personal Computers (PCs) were adopted at the factory floor. They were integrated to automation and tracking systems based on spreadsheets and the first wave of commercial manufacturing software, Computer-Integrated Manufacturing (CIM), which became the Manufacturing Execution System (MES).
We are now amid the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is fueled by the convergence and proliferation of multiple game-changing technologies. including smart phones, cloud computing, 3D simulation, 3D printing, robotics, augmented reality and AI—coupled with advances in speed, capacity and affordability of computers, networks, sensors and integration platforms that enable enhanced platforms for commerce and industrial systems.
Where the last revolution felt focused on productivity gains through mass production and optimization of the factory, the current revolution feels focused on a new era of manufacturing supporting mass customization and products sold as services.
It is finally possible to move forward with initiatives that started decades ago, about automation, data acquisition and bridging the IT (information technology like MES) and the OT (operational technology like PLCs) across many vendors and standards. However, many management teams are looking beyond the optimization and continuous-improvement mode of the last few decades.
The story behind this revolution is much bigger, and it is focused on transformation to new business models, orchestration of the value chain and evolving manufacturing ecosystems. Ecosystems with a mix of firms making parts and machines, developing software and providing services along with products. Separately, each ecosystem participant can focus and become very efficient in specialized competencies. Together, ecosystem partners can deliver complex solutions to the customer with a high level of customized service.
It is generally accepted that a great many business executives believe ecosystems are important—and that many are still unable to balance between investing in optimization of the current business and exploring the opportunities of new ecosystems and business models.
To get ready to participate in evolving ecosystems, start by making sure a digital backbone is established within each factory. A manufacturer still running the plant on paper will not be ready for a digital ecosystem. Every machine might not need to be connected to the factory system, but data-intensive stations placing a lot of components, running complex programs and inspecting parts should be providing data directly into a manufacturing system like MES. Every physical job needs a digital footprint in the MES. The MES is managing production and quality-control processes while updating in real time the production and customer orders in integrated enterprise systems like ERP with information that must eventually flow directly into the ecosystem network.
Technologies like data-integration hubs and IIoT platforms are facilitating the infrastructure. But establishing an efficient digital value chain and ecosystem is a complex issue for individual firms to tackle. Organizations must start thinking about the data and APIs needed for bi-directional communications among ecosystem participants and create a roadmap for how and when internal systems will support those types of data exchanges.
The journey to a connected ecosystem will take a few years with work to be done outside the four walls of the company. Industry groups, consortia, and institutes like MESA International, IIC, CESMII, and NIST are helping facilitate the convergence to digital infrastructure and data-exchange standards required to democratize the participation in ecosystems.
But many firms are sitting back and waiting. A far better move is to engage with these organizations now.