Reader Feedback: January 2019

Jan. 16, 2019
Keep clarifying Industry 4.0

I appreciate your editor’s page, “The phrase I love to hate.” I took interest in the words of Neil Mead in the book you recommended from

“The digital factory of the future will be full of smart, connected machines that require less human intervention and can be controlled and monitored remotely. Through the use of sensors, algorithms and software, they'll also be able monitor themselves and the process they're undertaking, while constantly adjusting for maximum efficiency and producing data that can be analyzed and acted on by a computer running sophisticated manufacturing execution software (MES).”

I've been in the process control industry since 1984 and have the following impression on the prior paragraph:

  • The factories of 1984 that I began my career in had smart and connected machines. The first facility I worked in had very sophisticated sensors using nuclear sources that sent data to a processor for control and display.
  • This required less human intervention than manual sampling and adjustment to valves.
  • The first project I worked on used sensor data to predict product quality that had previously only been measured with offline lab samples. I'd consider this use of sensors, algorithms and software.
  • As a practical matter, these applications had to monitor themselves and the process to alert operations to potential problems. To do otherwise would have made them unusable.
  • The objective of controls from the origin of the discipline is to make constant adjustments to maximize efficiency.
  • The control systems I worked on produced a lot of data that was analyzed to identify process or control problems.
  • That data was also fed into a plantwide computer system to enable management to see how we were operating, and make decisions.

Is anything new here? The answer is yes; there is new terminology and some new technology. The problem with the terminology is that buzzwords are being used without clear definition. Mead, to his credit, addresses this in his subsequent comments:

“There's no doubt that the term 'Industry 4.0' has been used and abused by some companies as a marketing tool. Professing to offer 'Industry 4.0-ready' or 'IoT compliant' products sounds impressive, but it's what they can actually provide to the end user that’s important. Much of this digital technology isn't new, but what the Industry 4.0 concept has done is bring a number of disparate technologies together in a joined-up offering that allows manufacturers to better understand the features and benefits of digitalization and smart factory solutions.”

Like you, the term “digitalization” makes me cringe. Analog-to-digital converters have been around for nearly 100 years, and our industry had digital communication to sensors and actuators from long before my career began in 1984. We aren’t suddenly digital, but our industry is different. Explaining what's new and different in clearly defined terms is important to ensure good decisions are made to avoid investments in vaporware and myth.

Pat Dixon, P.E., PMP
Southwest region engineering manager
Global Process Automation
[email protected]

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