Still, they have much further to go: “Industry 4.0 isn’t a project. It is a journey that the industry is embarking upon.”
It is a long journey, said Chenn Zhou, the founding director of both the Steel Manufacturing Simulation and Visualization Consortium and the Center for Visualization and Simulation at Purdue University Northwest, pointing out that it involves many things that are not currently in widespread use—such as machines that are able to communicate with each other and data collection using smart sensors.
There is also a need for artificial intelligence (AI) or deep machine learning to have smart analytics. Still, many observers suggest that that industry is in the very early stages of that journey.
“I would not describe the metals industry as an early adopter of Industry 4.0,” Mike Tomera, US metals leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC, said. Indeed, according to some surveys conducted by PwC, a number of metals companies are still sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see how things are going to play out.
That is not surprising, Richard Oppelt, Accenture Strategy’s principal director, said, given that the metals industry tends to be fairly conservative and fairly prudent about its capital investments.
One problem has been that Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things tends to include a certain amount of uncertainty that a company will be able to achieve its desired results.
“There isn’t the same direct line to a return on investment as there is for putting in a new piece of equipment, so a company’s degree of openness is a function of having the profitability to be able to do some experimental things.”
“The biggest challenge isn’t the technology,” SAP’s Koch argued, but the risk that comes with innovating and doing something that has the potential for being really disruptive. “It is a big step which requires a big commitment from the top-level management of the company.”
That does not mean there has not been any movement, however. Tomera said some inroads are starting to be made in the addition of connected devices, Internet of Things and plant connectivity, including the addition of sensors to help with safety and quality control.
“Whether we like it or not, this is already happening in several industries and it is slowly occurring in the metals industry even as we speak,” Carlo Travaglini, director of technology for Gerdau Long Steel North America, said.
“There might not be a whole lot of receptiveness by the industry yet, but it is going to come,” Travaglini added, noting that one of the beauties of the Industry 4.0 revolution is that all of the necessary capital investments can be retrofitted into existing operations, making it more affordable and achievable. This, he said, is very different from the last revolution—the automation revolution.
“You really had to change your manufacturing process completely, installing totally new equipment when adding programmable logic controllers, robotics and other automation tools. That doesn’t mean that achieving Industry 4.0 is an easy task. It isn’t,” Travaglini said. “But I think it is possible for us to make our factories smarter without having to redesign them completely, and that’s a good thing.”