A look into smart manufacturing and Industry 4.0
As operational technology merges with ICT, mobile communication has an important role to play towards the manufacturing industry. With that said, 80% of Industrial IoT is wired and fixed networks dominate in factories.
These long-established physical constraints have contributed to a fixed mindset in manufacturers too. Many processes are yet to be connected, measured and automated, but skepticism towards wireless exist, as well as a conservative approach to data.
With that in mind, how can we achieve credibility and trust in the manufacturing market and accelerate adoption of cellular technologies? Start small, think big and always explain why.
To successfully change the status quo, there are several barriers to overcome. Addressing any market with no common technology, highly specialized assets, and lack of distribution channels is a considerable challenge.
In addition, the industry market is also affected by governmental policy in regard to spectrum allocation. Still, the success of entry depend upon how well the value of technology is explained and illustrated in the context of its end customers. When promoting, developing and accelerating adoption of new solutions to a new market, the most essential part is to start with why.
Reasons why adopting new technology can be explained on different levels. First, it's the big picture – external events, macro trends and threats (like a shortage in human capital) that creates a sense of urgency.
For manufacturing, it's the race towards Industry 4.0 and the vision of high variance, low volume production. The current logic of economies of scale will no longer hold, and the cost of producing one unit should be the same producing one mass unit. Naturally, this puts enormous requirements on efficient customization, not only on production lines, but contributing work-flows, resources and logistics.
The work therein lies in defining why these challenges and requirements can be supported by cellular technologies and networks. For example: With mobility, reconfiguration of wireless production lines will be faster, workflows will be tracked and global operations and value chains can be redesigned.
Another question is related to the micro picture and identifying specific challenges to certain production and diverse segments within manufacturing. Common to all are constant production, mitigating bottlenecks and avoiding errors and accidents. Some of the specific problems within these categories might turn into unicorns, simple solution with big pay offs. For instance, 5G can monitor and save an expensive and error prone metal cutting process, leading to consistent high-quality products and reduction of sunk costs.
Simultaneously, justification for most manufacturers will be the sum of several use cases, separate or interconnected. As with all enabling technologies it is hard to quantify the exact value one network will represent as benefits accumulate as more devices are onboarded and use cases are run. For some factories, a strong business case will be simply removing costly wires, without counting the service enablement value of the wireless network. For others, sensors alerting the need to refill oil will avoid costly stops and downtime of machines.
Another question relates to highly detailed technical arguments, comparing cellular to other wireless alternatives. Presenting how the lack of seamless handover between cells of a Wi-fi network will affect the running of Automated Guided Vehicles and most likely create dangerous situations. Especially as more and more tasks become automated or autonomous, the quality and sophistication of the network grow more important.
To develop the right technical requirements and arguments for the industry, tight collaborations with industry players are essential, the learnings of which are ongoing, both in research as well as for proof of concepts and pilot deployments. Starting small usually means concentrating on one or two use cases in one specific area, and the holistic value might be overlooked. Although trialability is one of the drivers of adoption, it's not enough on its own, even if a pilot or PoC proves successful.
The rule of thumb for adopting new technology is that the perceived relative advantage to current solutions must be greater than the cost and effort of adopting it. Besides usefulness, is the technology considered easy to use and easily integrated with the adoption environment? Real or even perceived complexity always slows down buy in.
This naturally puts pressure on the high performing, but historically complex telco products. Also, in early markets such as in manufacturing, customers prefer entire solutions, not necessarily best in class products. Significant professional services and education are needed at the beginning of any new wave. Most potential customers don't understand the technology well enough, so experts must guide them, but while speaking their language and addressing their concerns.
Technology adoption is smoother when it is perceived as consistent with existing values, past experiences and needs of potential adopters. Going wireless is a clear departure from the past, and therefore the technology should be anchored to use cases and pain points they recognize. If the results and added value are consistently visible as well as tangible, the rate of adoption will increase too.
As a technology lead company, debating and describing the what and the how comes instinctively, and is, more often than not, the first priority. This approach worked out beautifully when the technology solutions was developed for and consumed within the old telecom world. The ICT landscape and dynamic are totally different. The very nature of IoT see sectors blending and creating new opportunities, addressing new markets. Manufacturing will benefit by adopting mobile technologies, but before a successful transfer of technology, comes a successful transfer of know-how; and even more notably know-why. The approach of starting small, thinking big and explaining why generates credibility and trust needed to accelerate adoption of new technologies.