Industry 4.0. There I said it. It’s the hottest buzzword in the manufacturing arena right now. After all, it’s an industrial revolution, no?
I can really appreciate the 4th major transformation of manufacturing as we know it, but that’s because I live in technology and manufacturing. I love to see what’s coming down the line in the future and how things will evolve. It’s really exciting for me, but what does it mean for most of the manufacturing shops in Canada? Well… not much really, not for a while anyway, and here’s why.
Industry 4.0 refers to the interaction between work centers in a manufacturing facility. Maybe even to the point of connecting over the web, but at minimum, the work centers are aware of each others existence. In addition, the parts navigating through manufacturing are smart in a sense. There’s some way for the machine to know what the part is, what it requires from that station, where it’s going next, etc.
Imagine a paint line that can adapt to different application and color between two parts in an instant without human intervention. This might seem pretty easy to accomplish. If the machine is expecting a black part and then a white part, it’s easy. But what if I were to swap the two parts before they get to the paint line? Most manufacturing processes would paint the parts the wrong color. Giving intelligence to the parts, let’s say in the form of RFID, would allow the paint line to identify what part is coming, what color it needs and the fact that I swapped the parts places would have no impact and we would end up with the correct parts with correct colours.
This is all really amazing stuff, but there are a number of things that need to be in place before any of this can happen. The majority of the secondary wood manufacturing industry is made up of small to medium sized shops. Most of these shops are still growing into technology in the shop. CNC machines are quite common, but RFID or similar part intelligence is not. Part tracking is quite foreign in our industry. Computer controlled machines are few and far between in the shop. There might be a computer on the CNC machine, maybe the drill and dowel machine, maybe the edgebander, but that might even be pushing it. For the entire manufacturing process to be connected, you first must have all work cells computer controlled to a certain extent. This is not common in the secondary woodworking industry and definitely not in small to medium-sized shops. Intelligent engineering software is widespread now, but EPR software is still in it’s infancy in woodworking.
The woodworking industry is just not as up to speed on technology as other industries, but we’ve haven’t had to be. The pressure is not as high to do it. Not like aerospace or automotive. These industries represent bigger dollars and have bigger players.
So in the end, the more tech pressured industries and the large players should be very interested in Industry 4.0, but it will be a while before it has a significant impact on small and medium-sized woodworking shops. We’ll see machine manufacturing companies push to develop lines and systems to show the capabilities related to Industry 4.0, but it will be rare to find a shop buying the entire process from scratch. Transforming a current shop with several brands of machines, a custom department, imperfect raw materials that vary depending on the season and perhaps an undefined product range will be a challenge. I would think the impact of Industry 4.0 to the average Canadian woodworking shop will be similar to the impact personal flying cars will have in my life. I might see the beginnings in my life, but I’m not expecting to do my groceries in one anytime soon.