Why ambitious Industry 4.0 plans need a better open standard approach to succeed

The UK government’s Industrial Strategy, launched in 2017, sets out a long term plan to boost productivity in British industry. Further to this, the government recently announced the creation of an AI Council, led by leaders within industry, to support the rapid adoption of artificial intelligence across all UK sectors. The opportunity could inject £455 billion into the UK economy and boost growth by 3% per annum with the creation of 175,000 jobs.

Already, 75% of supply chain managers see the need for further digitalisation to improve processes and it is predicted that nearly three quarters of industrial organizations will have completed this by 2020. In addition, the UK already has some 71 robots per 10,000 workers in the manufacturing industries as the automation of production accelerates.

It is envisioned that this ongoing digitalisation of industry will create a supply chain where products are developed, manufactured, and monitored in real-time through a single, integrated process. However, to achieve this, Industry 4.0 will require a revolution in industrial communications to create continuously ‘live’ data sharing capabilities between machines. This will enable vital data from sensor measurements to control signals can be digitally omnipresent across a factory the second it is generated.

If autonomous machines are to make safety-critical components, such as rail infrastructure, it is essential that those working on such projects are able to control the data that passes between machines. This includes being able to remotely monitor, optimise and maintain the machines to instantly detect and fix software faults. Cyber security teams will also need to be able to remotely monitor and intervene in manufacturing machinery to avert a critical cyber-attack from occurring. For example, agritech has been in the spotlight with a number of reports exposing the vulnerabilities IoT devices are introducing into traditional farming.

It’s clear that such complex but critically vulnerable systems will need external human supervision in case of faults or cyber-attacks that the machines are unable to detect themselves. 

Continuous ‘live data’ will also be critical to enable robot ‘workers’ to operate in seamless synchronicity, continually choreographing their actions in response to live location or measurement data from other robots.

Industry 4.0 will require us to apply the thinking behind the traditional ‘IT help desk’, to enable secure standards for sharing everything from audio and video to images and text among millions of industrial devices. This will require a genuinely low-latency, live connection that can make industrial control rooms digitally omnipresent across an entire supply chain, by enabling the two-way exchange of control signals and information.

However, there are currently no open standards for industrial remote communication to allow industrial machines to share live data or enable remote human intervention across all manufacturing equipment and components. Some organisations have proprietary protocols for remote access to machinery but these only work with their own machines. This proprietary model for machine-to-machine communication has arguably damaged other industries too. For example, millions of vehicles do not connect with certain phone models, thus creating a fragmented ‘connected car’ IoT, due to car dashboards being divided-up between rival smartphone and search engine firms that block their competitors’ devices.

If this system is replicated within the implementation of Industry 4.0, it could create a disjointed industrial IoT landscape where machines will not be able to interact with each other. This undermines the vision of a digitally-integrated, end-to-end supply chain and could make it impossible for industry to become truly automated. In addition, and arguably more crucially, it could jeopardise cyber security measures by making some machines inaccessible to those who can defend against an attack.

The only way to achieve the government’s vision is to create a secure, open platform for end-to-end data exchange across the entire industrial supply chain. This would enable safe, low-latency and multi-directional communication among all machines. Crucially, it would mean that supply chain connectivity is backwards-compatible and fully ‘future-proofed’ so it can seamlessly incorporate any new industrial robots that emerge in future. It would also make technicians, cyber security personnel, engineers and factory staff digitally omnipresent across a factory floor of diverse and varied equipment, and enable them to instantly remote into any machine to fix faults.

If we are to fully realise the vision of Industry 4.0 and an interconnected supply chain across the UK, and worldwide, we must challenge rival industrial manufacturers to convene around an open standard approach that will strengthen all the stakeholders in the supply chain.

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