Start small and use standards wisely in the Industry 4.0 game

Picture a dim sum manufacturing plant. The factory floor is running smoothly with pieces of dim sum produced like clockwork. Raw ingredients are delivered just as the current batch is done. Machines are fixed before they fail and manufacturing schedules are automatically adjusted to meet a last-minute order.

This is what the future of manufacturing looks like.

The world is now in the era of Industry 4.0 (I4.0). Business leaders all over the world recognise the need to get on and adapt to this digitalisation move. Germany, an industry pioneer in I4.0, plans to invest a total of EUR 40 billion in I4.0 applications by 2020, with a projected growth of EUR 153 billion.

However, some SMEs find the notion of adopting I4.0 daunting.

Many see I4.0 as a bugbear. It is an inevitability, yet difficult to implement and capital intensive. Even though companies are interested in reaping the rewards of transformation, some currently lack the technical know-how and resources to embark on this. Moreover, a major overhaul of equipment, processes and upskilling of the workforce are not feasible for every SME. These steps are perceived to be disruptive to operations and require a large, upfront investment.

These are misconceptions that businesses are up against. Nonetheless, Singapore enterprises can prepare for this future in a sensible and manageable fashion. Here is how:

Take small, incremental steps

There is no singular way for enterprises to become I4.0-ready. In fact, it need not be one mammoth step right from the start. Businesses can implement I4.0 solutions in small steps, before gradually moving towards building smart factories of the future.

To ease this process, SMEs can consider developing a roadmap with incremental milestones. I4.0 solutions can be adopted in bite-sized phases so that businesses can build their capabilities progressively.

Onn Wah Precision Engineering did precisely this.

Recognising the need to go I4.0 to remain competitive, Mr Lam Keng Yew, the business’ second-generation owner, set a long-term goal to steer the company into digital manufacturing. He conducted extensive research and carefully outlined a plan to be implemented over the next two to three years.

The first order of business? To gather all relevant data within the factory floor onto one platform for analysis. This will enable the company to find ways to optimise processes.

With Enterprise Singapore’s support, Onn Wah’s next step was to implement the Manufacturing Execution System (MES) to monitor and track data flow and active manufacturing processes. The company’s strategy was to automate a single process and give it some runtime to iron out kinks, before moving on to other components in the production line. This will boost the factory’s capabilities and increase its productivity by about 10 to 15% in the near future.

For a smooth transition, adopt standards

It may not be intuitive, but adopting standards can help lay the foundation for future I4.0 adoption. When it comes to smart factories, interoperability is a key component.

Imagine having just purchased a new I4.0 solution for the factory floor to automate production processes. Once installed, it is discovered that the solution does not integrate well with other existing systems. This poses a dilemma. Should additional sensors and middleware be adopted so that all parts can detect, interact and communicate with each other? Or should there be a complete replacement of existing machines to ensure compatibility across the board? Either way, this will require huge additional investments.

To avoid scenarios like these, SMEs need to be aware of standards in manufacturing before adopting new I4.0 technology and solutions.

One such example is the IEC 62541, the standard for Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture (OPC UA). OPC UA enables the exchange of data across machines and systems, which is a necessary feature for automated production. By adopting OPC UA and implementing IEC 62541 compliant systems, companies ensure that their machines, sensors, controllers and even cloud-based servers can “speak” to each other in the same “language” and communicate seamlessly across the factory floor. This reduces the need for additional equipment such as external sensors, gateways or controllers, to operate as “middlemen” in interpreting the data.

Major players in the industrial automation industry such as Yokogawa and Siemens have implemented these standards. IT and software leaders like Microsoft and SAP currently support OPC UA as well.

SMEs can do the same too. By adopting these standards, new solutions can be easily integrated with current manufacturing processes.

Managing information security

As SMEs continue to digitalise and improve on their operational efficiency, there is a need to take steps to secure and manage sensitive information.

The ISO/IEC 27001 offers a framework of policies and procedures to help companies keep their information safe. By employing these best practices and controls, SMEs can safeguard against security incursions, keep their information safe and ensure the secure exchange of information with stakeholders.

Markono Print Media is a company who has used the ISO/IEC 27001 to successfully manage data. The certification process of ISO/IEC 27001 guided the company in reviewing how it handled and shared data across various operation processes. The certification now provides a sense of assurance to both the company and its customers, giving it an added advantage over competitors.

As SMEs embark on their I4.0 journey, it is crucial to take stock of their current state of development and business goals. At the heart of every smart factory lies a fully integrated network of machines and solutions, and the adoption of relevant standards will go a long way in easing the transition towards I4.0.

Ms Chow Sauw Kook | Director-General (Quality and Excellence Group) | Enterprise Singapore

Ms Choy leads various national initiatives that build trust in Singapore products, services and organisations. These include the development and promotion of internationally recognised standards and quality assurance infrastructure supporting many key industries. She also oversees the Board’s regulatory function in ensuring the safety of general consumer goods in Singapore as well as the weights and measures office. Internationally, she is the current ISO Vice President (Technical Management) for 2019 – 2020, and is a member of the ISO Nomination Review Committee.