Industry 4.0: The urgency of data standardisation

Industry 4.0. consists of autonomous production chains made more intelligent by the combination of ever more advanced technologies. Yet these technologies must be capable of communicating with one another, within increasingly immense and complex ecosystems, in order to streamline, secure, and optimise logistics and production processes. 

Industry 4.0: The gateway to the future

Sometimes presented as the new industrial revolution, Industry 4.0, primarily represents an advance in production means and practices. Characterised by interconnected machines and systems, it involves making production and supply chains smarter in order to improve efficiency in resource allocation and increase agility in production processes.

This transformation of manufacturing is accompanied by a modernisation of its tools, including CAD/CAM software (Computer-Aided Design and Manufacturing), MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems), PLM software (Product Lifecycle Management), and ERP software. Manufacturers have enhanced their information systems immensely to be able to monitor, automate, and secure their production chain. We are also witnessing the explosion of the Internet of Things (IoT), whose industrial applications keep growing.

All of these tools seem to be coming together today, in response to a growing need for openness, agility, and productivity. Whether physical or virtual, traditional boundaries and barriers on industrial enterprises are fading as markets open, omnichannel models emerge, stakeholders multiply, and global competition intensifies, gradually redefining the reaches of such companies. They can no longer be self-sustaining or operate in a closed circuit. They are in the middle of an ecosystem that encompasses customers, suppliers, and partners, with whom they must continuously and instantaneously communicate in order to streamline and accelerate supply chain production processes.

Moving toward sector-based platforms

Customers, for example, now demand customised products, but at the same price and with the same efficiency as those mass-produced. Industry 4.0 will be able to provide them with this, since production chains will be able to automatically configure themselves according to specific, individualised needs. This means increased interaction between logistics and production entities, which will have to be reliable and secure. This would ensure not only the safety and integrity of information systems, but also the compliance and performance of products and their delivery.

The challenge therefore lies in manufacturers’ ability to have total visibility across their entire ecosystem, at all levels. Only with such visibility in place can they prevent problems that may occur along their production chain and limit the number of errors, which are potentially increased by the growing complexity of the supply chain. Yet, too much information, not too little, is to blame for visibility problems today. Manufacturers must therefore learn to control and analyse this massive amount of data from across their entire ecosystem in order to make better, more strategic decisions and to manage alerts at appropriate times.

In the extended organisation, there are contractors who typically require their suppliers to comply with their trade protocols and standards via client-implemented platforms. But with Industry 4.0, such platforms will integrate with the entire ecosystem and decentralised entities, and will communicate directly with one another according to a subsidiary model. It is therefore vital that all stakeholders agree to a single exchange standard.

A necessary standardisation of data streams

Some sectors have already reached this conclusion and have developed sector-based exchange platforms. One such sector is the aerospace industry, whose European leaders launched the “BoostAeroSpace” platform in 2011 to unify collaborative processes between the sector’s various players. The platform now has 1,500 partners, who enjoy logistics management and data exchange solutions designed specifically by and for their profession.

Although EDI allows for solid data structuring, this is not the case for vertical software (CAD/CAM, PLM, MES, etc.), which is not natively designed to communicate with one another or with millions of connected things. Communicating using APIs, in close cooperation with EDIs, is a good way to meet these new communication and horizontal integration requirements. Given the volume of data and the disparity of the systems involved, efficient circulation of data streams within these immense ecosystems (tools, machines, and production chains sometimes distributed over multiple geographical sites, logistics and or production entities, etc.) calls for standardisation. Establishing consortia representing the sector’s key stakeholders, for each ecosystem, is certainly a must.

It is essential to think about standardising data streams. Only through standardisation can the industry of the future develop and offer its full innovative potential. Europe is committed to helping its industrial production reach 20% of its GDP by 2020 (compared to 15% today). Industry 4.0 can certainly help achieve this, as long as all European players will have the means to implement it, working constructively and promoting synergies between their ecosystems.

By Antoine Rizk, Axway