Harnessing the power of industry 4.0

4 mins read

What's being termed 'Industry 4.0' holds out the promise of some interesting opportunities, says Phil Lewis of Infor. But how best to exploit them?

There's a new buzzword on the block. And among those in the know, the buzzword in question – Industry 4.0 – is causing some excitement. Because if some of the buzzwords that we've heard in recent years have been touted as solutions to problems that manufacturers weren't always certain that they'd been experiencing, then Industry 4.0 is undeniably a means of addressing problems that they most certainly are experiencing. But first, what exactly is Industry 4.0? Various definitions are around, concedes Infor's ever-straightalking senior director of solution consulting, Phil Lewis. But the one he finds most productive, he adds, is the view of Industry 4.0 as 'an Internet of Things and People, but for manufacturers'. Put like that, the picture is clearer. And there's no doubt that the Internet of Things is rapidly gaining mindshare among manufacturers, who see in it a way of connecting their ERP systems and other enterprise applications to a wide variety of devices and equipment – the 'Things' in the label. A casual app-driven approach And yet, as many manufacturers concur, the hype around the Internet of Things does leave something to be desired, at least from a purely manufacturing point of view. As Lewis points out, for instance, it's one thing for consumers to use the Internet of Things to change a home thermostat setting with their smartphone, or switch on the oven, so that there's something for dinner. But it's quite another thing for manufacturers with expensive machinery, complex businesses, and mission-critical ERP systems to take the same casual app-driven approach. For manufacturing businesses, in short, Industry 4.0 opens the door to the same 'everything to everything' connectivity as the Internet of Things, but does it in a way that is sensibly bounded by standards, security considerations, protocols, and enterprise-class software design. Which, he stresses, will be an absolute necessity if manufacturers are to securely yet profitably exploit the sort of opportunities that are starting to become apparent. "At one end of the spectrum, you've got opportunities such as servitization, where manufacturers can charge for equipment on a 'per use' basis, rather than outright sale," he explains. "At the other end, you've got equipment recognising that it needs servicing, or re-filling, and then broadcasting its requirement to competing providers. And in between, there's a range of other exciting and intriguing possibilities, each of which adds value in different ways." Indeed, enthuses Lewis, Industry 4.0 redefines a lot of the ways in which manufacturers and the IT vendor community have been thinking about IT connectivity. "The pundits have been talking about the connected enterprise for years," he points out. "But now we've got there, it's not just about connecting to applications, it's about connecting to devices and machines which is very different." Hence, of course, the growing importance to Infor, and its customers, of a strategic investment that the company made a few years back in its ION integration and middleware layer, which has since become core to its product strategy. Originally conceived as a way of bringing together Infor's extensive clutch of acquisitions onto a common communication and integration platform, ION has since turned out to be something of a jewel in the crown, thanks to its ability to serve as a middleware layer connecting together a wide range of both Infor and non-Infor applications. And doing so, moreover, within a cloud context, further adding to the connectivity possibilities. But critically, it turns out, ION is also perfectly at home connecting to devices and equipment, thereby acting as a bridge between them and a manufacturer's enterprise applications and ERP system. And this, points out Lewis, neatly hands Infor something of a trump card in the debate about how best to exploit Industry 4.0. "The difference is that we aren't just talking about it – we're doing it," he emphasises. "It's not simply a theoretical capability: it's something that's in thousands of manufacturing businesses around the world." Which isn't to say that Infor has been resting on its laurels. Far from it, says Lewis, pointing to a new release of Infor's flagship enterprise platform, dubbed Infor Xi. As with its predecessor, Infor 10x, Infor Xi offers the combination of a consumer-grade user experience, Infor's Ming.le social collaboration platform, advanced cloud deployment capabilities and industry-specific CloudSuite options – with the latter offering optional 'bundled in' pre-integrated best-in-class niche specialist applications, such as Infor's CRM, Expense Management or Enterprise Asset Management systems. Improved cloud deployment But Infor Xi, he adds, also builds on this to add specific Industry 4.0 functionality, as well as further improved cloud deployment coupled to Big Data analytics and monitoring capabilities designed to exploit the wealth of data that Industry 4.0 can deliver. The cloud deployment offering for instance, not only leverages Amazon Web Services' cloud infrastructure to allow customers to take advantage of Amazon's expertise and economies of scale, but also provides access to leading open source solutions such as Red Hat's Enterprise Linux, and JBoss Enterprise Middleware, and EnterpriseDB's Postgres Plus database. The Big Data analytics and monitoring capabilities, meanwhile, come from Infor Dynamic Science Labs, and comprise applications to help companies gain insights from predictive analytics, anticipate problems, and uncover opportunities. "And it's in existence now," he enthuses. "And all our applications right across our range of offerings have been engineered to interact with it." Roll it all together, and what emerges is a happy coincidence that is surely far from accidental. Because those manufacturers in the twelve vertical industry sectors in which Infor specialises – industries such as automotive, aerospace and defence, distribution, fashion & textiles, industrial equipment, and food and beverages – are arguably those manufacturers that are poised to benefit most from the Industry 4.0 paradigm. And now, with ION and Infor Xi, these very manufacturers now have a platform designed to deliver the promise that Industry 4.0 holds out. In short, an interesting future lies ahead.