Industry 4.0 is a catch-all buzzword for new and emerging digital technologies that have immense potential when applied to the manufacturing space. Today, the adoption of Industry 4.0 applications—like the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, Big Data, and machine learning—can help improve quality, increase operational efficiencies, and reduce lead times, to name just a few benefits. Large manufacturing firms with ample research capabilities and organizational resources are moving quickly to implement these advanced technologies. However, small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs), being more risk-averse and with less financial and human resources, are in danger of being left behind by what has been dubbed the fourth industrial revolution.
Individually small in size, SMMs as a whole make up a powerful sector of U.S. manufacturing. On average, they account for more than 96 percent of American exports. A transition to Industry 4.0 that includes only large U.S. manufacturers could shrink American economic influence globally. More than 40 countries, including China, Germany, and Japan, already have policies in place to accelerate Industry 4.0 among SMMs while no such national strategy exists in the United States.
Only 5 percent of American SMMs report having begun an Industry 4.0 transition. But that number is likely to grow, thanks to new initiatives like the Industry 4.0 Transition Assistance Program at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). The program prepares SMMs in New York State for Industry 4.0, starting with an in-depth assessment of a company’s unique strengths and challenges. Specialists from RIT translate what they learn through the assessment into a detailed, step-by-step roadmap that lays out a pathway to Industry 4.0 over the course of 3–5 years.
RBW, a lighting design and manufacturing company headquartered in Brooklyn, New York, is one of the first companies to leverage RIT’s Industry 4.0 program for creating a strategic digital transformation roadmap. RBW’s leadership sees Industry 4.0 as key to helping them transform their manufacturing processes to meet increasing customer demands, improve quality control through vision-based inspection systems, and use data to support more informed, quicker decision-making. The company also plans to leverage automation technologies to streamline redundant, repetitive tasks across its business.
We sat down with Theo Richardson, RBW’s director of innovation, to learn more about the company’s Industry 4.0 strategy following his work with RIT.
Q: In 2020, RIT performed an assessment of RBW’s digital readiness and facilitated creation of a strategic roadmap to support your company in a successful transition to Industry 4.0. Do you think RBW is ready for Industry 4.0? How did you come to the decision of adopting Industry 4.0 as a company? What questions, if any, did you need to answer before moving forward?
A: RIT's team helped us understand what Industry 4.0 means for our business. We also needed to know that the expertise was relevant to our small scale. As we began, we quickly developed trust with the RIT team based on their depth of knowledge.
Q: Industry 4.0 calls for new ways of doing things that often lead companies to completely rethink how they use and organize their facility space. Has RBW’s Industry 4.0 transition led you to consider new ways of using physical space? Are there plans to change the current production layout, expand it, or even relocate manufacturing entirely?
A: Through the process it became very evident that we didn't even have room for an automation sandbox (or some physical test area). We determined that we would not be able to grow in our current space and sought to expand our facility.
Q: Quality assurance (QA) is an area where Industry 4.0 technologies like vision-based inspection and record-keeping are allowing manufacturers to dramatically improve and streamline quality control. Are you considering any changes to RBW’s QA process following RIT’s assessment?
A: Yes. We are looking at how QA can involve greater automation (vision systems) and how it can be supported by integrated databases.
Q: RBW has enterprise resource planning (ERP) software in place to track inventory movements. Many manufacturers are familiar with ERP as a tool, even if it’s the only digital tool in an otherwise analog environment. How long has RBW had an ERP in place? What other opportunities has it unlocked? Was RBW’s adoption of an ERP system an outcome of its Industry 4.0 journey?
A: Our ERP has been in place for four years. Our Industry 4.0 journey probably began with some trips we took to different manufacturers who were automated and these were very inspiring to us. Our ERP journey is still just beginning; we're only now really learning how to customize and leverage its strengths. We think, by better leveraging our ERP system, we can offer 100K product codes with a team of roughly 50 and ship products within 10-day lead times.
Q: Glass has many properties that make it perfect for lighting. However, it is very fragile, which is one reason why so much of RBW’s products are assembled manually. What limitations have you found relying on manual assembly? Do you believe that robotics can help the lighting industry automate shop-floor operations?
A: Perhaps our biggest challenge to adopting some Industry 4.0 concepts is that we have high-mix, low-volume production. This suggests to us that we should focus our automation efforts elsewhere (data, office workflows) and not strictly in robotics. We have a newer appreciation for automation in the broader context of repetitive work (of any type).
Q: Manufacturers that were on a path to digital transformation were better equipped to deal with recent pandemic-related disruptions. Do you think RBW’s software systems helped you better navigate the pandemic? If so, do you see any specific Industry 4.0 technologies playing a broader role in building a competitive advantage in the future? How?
A: Our pandemic experience was very productive due to some software choices we made prior to the emergence of COVID-19. We had moved away from a server-based computer-aided design (CAD) platform on our premises to a cloud-based one (Onshape) just before mandatory closures took effect. We also made great use of digital collaboration tools (like Mural.co and Wrike.com). I think Industry 4.0 is about leveraging a breadth of technologies and much of it boils down to a company’s ability to integrate platforms; in essence, I think organizational understanding and use of application programming interfaces (APIs) is a competitive advantage.
Q: “Data is the new oil” is now cliché. However, many companies haven’t mastered the shift in decision making. As you embark upon an Industry 4.0 journey, do you envision a data-driven future? Does your newly developed Industry 4.0 roadmap improve clarity on RBW’s shop-floor Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and their tracking mechanisms?
A: We had data, but it did not have a lot of integrity. Right now, we are building a strong foundation of data structures, scrubbing bad records, optimizing fields, and we believe this is key to helping us scale. Our roadmap is already providing a lot of insights into how we can get more accuracy out of our KPIs.
Q: Industry 4.0 is an enabler. Progressive organizations are fast-realizing the importance of having the right talent to build and sustain momentum in technology-driven improvements. Do you see Industry 4.0 as a driver for RBW’s growth? How would RBW’s Industry 4.0 roadmap influence its organizational structure going forward? Do you plan to augment your current strengths with specialized talent in newer technologies?
A: Together with RIT, we built a roadmap for high-impact, low-effort projects that had the most influence on profit and loss. From this roadmap, we identified the teams and roles that would lead the projects. These business needs have informed how we’re structured and our recruiting priorities.