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Digital Transformation – A Digital Platform for Industry 4.0 – III

The basic concept of Industry 4.0 is a flattening out of the Value Chain with every player becoming able (potentially) to interact with all the others. This is achieved through the sharing of data and this is why many feel that the digital platform should be focussing on data. Image credit: SAP

In a certain sense data come for free to Industry 4.0. What I mean is that over the last decade computers aided tools have become the screwdrivers and pliers of the past in manufacturing. Bits are pervasive in product design, prototyping, digital lathe, robots. And then bits are a crucial part of inventory, shipping, quality control, invoicing, payment collection, features delivery and more and more feature update through new releases. Bits have become an integral part of the manufacturing value chain.

In some cases, like when dealing with software “manufacturing” bits are almost 100% of the raw material needed (yes you have computers, clouds to run them on but you can take those for granted, and the boxing of bits is fading away, since by far applications are now downloaded directly from the company “cloud” or from some on-line store.

At the same time the pervasive use of bits over the last decades happened through waves of digitization. This has resulted in a not homogeneous landscape where different tools are not talking to one another, where representations differ in different parts of the value chain and through out the manufacturing processes. The number of data records, data bases has ballooned to the point that one of the big issues facing companies today is achieving interoperability among the different components.

In Industry 4.0 the issue gets even more difficult to manage since the variety of systems that would need to interoperate are no longer within a single company but are owned and operated by different companies.

A further component that has become more and more relevant as data generator is the growth of sensors, basically the lion share of the Internet of Things. IoT are amazing data generators but at the same time they cover a very broad spectrum with thousands of ways to generate data (in terms of frequency, volume, characteristics …). People talks of IoT as if they were a single “thing”, an entity clustering with common characteristics. Not so. The variety of the IoT and the different manufacturing and operation landscape (including in this latter the communications paradigms involved) makes the term IoT basically useless if we want to leverage on the data they generate (or the ones used in their operation). As a corollary, when someone claims that 5G is great for IoT one should be aware that there is not such a thing as generalised IoT that share common communications requirement such that a single communication paradigm can fit them all.

The flattening of the Value Chain in the case of Smart Fridge. Notice the role of IoT that are sensing at the customer premises the usage and provide data upstream for analyses. Data analytics, integrating data from thousands of fridges in operation, provide hints to operation problems, allows the provisioning of maintenance services and helps in design of future products. These data percolate throughout the Value Chain. Suppliers can be alerted of issues in the component they provide and continuous re-design is enabled. Image credit: SAP

Companies like SAP are looking at providing integration frameworks (and related tools) to manage this diversity. In case of SAP they are offering their B1iF, Business One Integration Framework, pointing out that Industry 4.0 is about meeting and leveraging on four main challenges:

  1. Data volume, processing and connectivity
  2. Exploiting data beyond manufacturing, using those same data through analytics and AI for business
  3. Exploiting data to improve human machine interaction (haptic, augmented reality, virtual reality
  4. Effectively linking bits to atoms

As noted, any digital platform needs to acquire a strong footprint and SAP is leveraging on their presence in the manufacturing industry with their ERP solutions. They are building on those and leveraging on the effort they made on creating HANA, the platform designed to support IoT in industrial environment. They are actively socialising the value of B1iF creating an open environment allowing third parties to develop application and they use common data ontology as the aggregation point. The approach is very similar to the one I presented when discussing institutional driven digital platform, looking at the Province of Trento. Both are using data as their starting point. In case of SAP there is a much stronger integration with the Cloud and with several tools that SAP is providing (based on their existing portfolio on ERP applications, well known by the industry).

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