Industry 4.0

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Protolabs’ Insight video series

Our Insight video series will help you master digital manufacturing.

Every Friday we’ll post a new video – each one giving you a deeper Insight into how to design better parts. We’ll cover specific topics such as choosing the right 3D printing material, optimising your design for CNC machining, surface finishes for moulded parts, and much more besides.

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Insight: Industry 4.0


Hello and welcome to this week’s Insight.

Today I’m going to get a bit futuristic and cover Industry 4.0.  Although as you will see, Industry 4.0 actually started a number of years ago.

You’ve probably run into discussions about Industry 4.0 more than a few times. If you haven’t, it’s the theory that the integrating of digital communication and online tools with real, physical hardware will help to bring about the fourth industrial revolution.

If that sounds a little outlandish, you may want to reconsider that the next time you look about your house or walk down the street, everything from intelligent thermostats to wearable fitness trackers are examples of this kind of hybridisation, and as time passes it’s becoming more and more common on the factory floor as well as the high street.

Now, there are plenty of articles and videos out there promising to give an overview of the entire concept, as well as the related Internet of Things idea, but today we’re going to focus on how Industry 4.0 is impacting our corner of the manufacturing sector, and how it might do so in the future.

I’m going to give you a few examples of manufacturers that are making inroads into this area, but I’ll start with a subject I know well and show you how it impacts our business.

Protolabs has always been at the forefront of boosting manufacturing with digital technology.

When we launched our quick-turn CNC machining operations in 2007 we made sure to share the information from the integrated part quoting and toolpathing systems with the production floor, where video displays allow workers to see real-time information on job queues, setup requirements, production, and quality metrics. Likewise, status information was automatically collected as jobs progress through the manufacturing process, and then fed back into the MRP and inventory control systems.

It’s a closed-loop system, one that requires less human intervention on the production floor and more in front of a computer. This reduces manufacturing costs, increases throughput and gives management the data they need to make intelligent decisions. This, really, is the essence of digital manufacturing.

Of course, we aren’t the only ones working in this space. Engineering companies report that digital manufacturing processes allow them to cut dimensional-related costs by up to 50%.

Aerospace giant Pratt and Whitney revamped its configuration management systems in favour of a unified CAD-driven data management solution from Siemens that decreased product development costs by 75%.

These results aren’t unique. According to consulting firm CIM data, digital manufacturing efforts can improve time-to-market by 30%, reduce process planning efforts and equipment costs by 40% and increase overall production throughput by 15 percent.

Indeed, the speed benefits offered by digital manufacturing bring other benefits too, such as cost savings in the product development phase thanks to shorter development cycles and greater efficiencies with on-demand or low-volume manufacturing – all enabled by the digitisation process.

Data is shared between both ends of the manufacturing process and everywhere in between, from product conception and design upload to printing, finishing and delivery. And by incorporating technologies that have traditionally been at opposite ends of the industry—additive and subtractive—you can add flexibility and provide new ways to cut production costs and manufacturing lead times.

As you might expect, this is an incredible benefit if you are focussed on rapidly developing new products and maintaining them beyond launch.

Of course, as with any new technology or idea there are some potential challenges associated with the shift to internet-connected manufacturing. The biggest – and certainly the scariest – of these is probably security, as the idea of hackers being able to remotely access the machines on your shop floor is certainly worrying. This is especially concerning for smaller businesses and shops who lack the capacity to have a dedicated IT person on site, let alone an expert in network security.

While this is certainly something to bear in mind, industry is already working to set up protocols and design systems that will make industrial computing safe and secure.

I appreciate that might not be the most comforting thing in the world to hear, but these are the realities of dealing with the new world of Industry 4.0. The pillars of previous revolutions - steam engines, assembly lines, integrated circuits – could all be seen, touched and smelled, but this isn’t the case with the Industrial Internet of Things and the digital thread, which are a digital mish-mash of data, software and ideas.

However, the IIoT and Industry 4.0 share one big thing in common with earlier industrial revolutions—the promotion and betterment of that most basic modern institution: the factory. Without manufacturing, any country will flounder, and it’s up to manufacturers to provide the best capabilities and most efficient processes they can leverage to produce products.

That’s it for this week. I look forward to seeing you again next Friday.




With special thanks to Natalie Constable.

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