Manufacturing is a transformative process that either removes material or combines components to make a product. When the material or components reach the final stage, and fulfills the expected fit, form, and function then and only then we call it finish good.

Alongside recent human’s history, fit, form, and function have evolved aligned with customer’s needs generating adjustments on the manufacturing processes. This transformation however has drastically changed four distinctive times:

1. At the beginning with the use of steam power as energy, manual muscle power became mechanical forces that facilitated transportation of material, lifting, cutting, bending, and other tasks. All the operations were closed to the energy source to prevent loses.

2. With the arrival of electricity, operations were allowed to be far from each other, conveyors for material transportation appeared and with them, the possibility of moving the material under transformation from station to station or what is now known as production line. This change from Job shop to linear manufacturing allowed large efficiencies to happen. Now the entire transformation process can be broken down in distinctive operations, and each operation can be standardized. This model prevailed thanks to the continuous incremental efficiencies gained through the use of good industrial engineering practices such Lean manufacturing.

3. Around 1960, one of the most important optimization tools came with invention of the PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) and its application for automation. In this scenario, standardization achieved higher levels of efficiency by the removal of the human element, and astonishing machine speeds. Productivity skyrocket and everybody was happy if and only if the same exact product was requested by the customer in massive numbers.

4. The failure of the automation model was and continuous to be the lack of flexibility to changes in fit, forms, and function. At the same time that the gap between customers’ needs and manufacturing capabilities elongates, three events are taking place affecting the way we conceive manufacturing in the 21st century: 1) A digital wave that is taking over the world changing the way almost everything is done; 2) A reconsideration for a more flexible automation with ample inclusion of robots; and 3) the birth of printing technology capable of making a products by adding material instead of subtracting it.

The effect of these three events is similar to the impact of steam, electricity, and the PLC. New business models are popping up proposing new products and solutions. At the same time Digitalization, Flexible Automation, and Additive Manufacturing are the pillars under which the fourth manufacturing transformation is taking place. This revolution has been called Cyber Manufacturing, Digital Manufacturing, Smart manufacturing, e-Manufacturing, and Factory of the Future among other names. The shared expectation regardless of the appellation is for larger efficiencies: increases in productivity, improvements in quality, shorter lead-times, delivery predictability, increase in asset utilization, safer and ergonomic work environments and so on.

"If you are looking for greater efficiencies or to improve your customer satisfaction, manufacturing 4.0 is a must do, and it should be a top priority in your organization"

These three technological forces are vital for manufacturing not only to climb the mountain of profitability and quality but to survive face to the constant product changes made by an unfriendly customer who wants his impeccable quality customized product immediately, instead of waiting for standard delivery of an standard product of standard quality as it used to be in the peaceful times of the third technological revolution. Therefore, if you are looking for greater efficiencies or to improve your customer satisfaction, Manufacturing 4.0 is a must do, and it should be a top priority in your organization. There is no simple way to achieve implementation, here are some activities you can pursue:

1) Identify major impact by performing an assessment of your manufacturing capabilities. For example: are you still use manufacturing paper records; Do you employee people to capture data; Do you lose productivity due to re-training on product reconfigurations; Do you harvest digital data for continuous improvements; are you manually moving material all along your site; Do you know immediately if you underutilizing your assets; Do you have a human doing visual inspections; or do you pay premiums for low volume components, etc. These are among many others are the opportunities you have vis-à-vis of manufacturing 4.0.

2) Marry these opportunities with your Key metrics trending. How much your lack of flexibility is impacting productivity; how much cost these non-value added activities, etc. It is important to quantify the impact to motivate your future sponsors and align that impact with the organization priorities or business segment.

3) Tie your opportunities with potential technology solutions and outline a multiyear plan that supports budget and resource allocation as well as savings and quality improvement expectations. Finally, submit your multi-year plan to the right sponsors and manage it through a PMO.

The rise of digitalization, flexible automation, and additive manufacturing places emergent technologies as an important part of the continuous improvement journey. The strategic use of them will provide the expected benefits, however their unprepared, untargeted application without clear understanding of key technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Collaborative Robots, Autonomous Mobile Robots, 3D printing, and others will only yield an increase in complexity of your manufacturing processes and subsequently generating the opposite effect.

Massive, one fits all manufacturing is sliding out of customer minds as well as the world around is rapidly changing making the value creation more difficult. Manufacturing 4.0 offers answers to palliate most of these technological, and market forces, however the fight against the status quo has never being easy, so first and foremost take care of your people, use technology to alleviate ergonomic and safety chronic problems, make people’s life at work easier not more complicated; from collection to harvesting, data is the new oil and the wise use of it will significantly impact your improvements.

There are no magic wands to thrive in manufacturing but a relentless pursue of excellence. Any time we have faced changes from craftsmanship, to massive production, massive customization and now individualization, we have adapted and return with innovative solutions.