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MIT's David Hardt

Photo courtesy: MIT.edu

While Industry 4.0 does identify an emerging stage in manufacturing processes, the underlying — and persistent — principles of manufacturing still apply, according to MIT’s Professor David Hardt.

Professor Hardt is one of the many people involved in studying and teaching Industry 4.0-related issues. An expert in system dynamics, control and manufacturing processes, Hardt is the Ralph E. & Eloise F. Cross Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. He has also served as the Director of the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity, and Engineering Co-Director of the MIT Leaders for Manufacturing Program.

Professor Hardt gave a talk, “What is Industry 4.0 and How Did We Get Here?” at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation in Waltham, Mass. on Wednesday, March 4, 2020, as part of the museum’s Mill Talks series.

Based on a conversation I had with Professor Hardt, here are some of his thoughts on:

  1. What’s new about Industry 4.0
  2. Recommendations for engineers and companies looking to apply Industry 4.0
  3. Advice for students looking to add Industry 4.0 chops to their skill set

Defining Industry 4.0: It’s A Step In A Progression of Technologies

Industry 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, and 4.0 can be viewed as progressions of technology in how we make things. Hardt explains:

[With Industry 1.0] we had measurement and standards, so you could segregate production into separate workstations or processes. Industry 2.0 was the mass-production era, with lots standardization and flowing of the material through the factory. Industry 3.0 brought automation and some measure of flexibility. And 4.0 brings in digitalization and cyber-systems.

However, Hardt adds, “We are still making cars and other things basically the same way — flowing material through factories making significant quantities of each.”

Industry 4.0 is often viewed as a cluster of technologies. Even the Boston Consulting Group lists nine technology trends, including big data and analytics, the Industrial Internet of Things, and the Cloud, as forming the building blocks of Industry 4.0.

If asked to define Industry 4.0 in just one word, Hardt says he would channel Mr. McGuire in the 1967 movie “The Graduate” and say, digitalization.

“By this, I mean the slow and continuous transition to basically having everything in a digital form, accurate, easily accessible anywhere, and analyzable,” Hardt explains. “For example, one former student of mine who’s now a successful entrepreneur said that to him, the first sign of industry 4.0 in a company might be people on the factory floor switching from paper notebooks to computer tablets.”

But, Hardt points out, “Regardless of where one is on that progression, we still have unit processes, in a stream of processes (the factory) with material and products flowing in and out in supply chains, all to deliver at the time and cost that is competitive.”

Learn Both Technologies And Underlying Principles

According to Hardt, today’s students and employees have to learn more about computers and programming, study robotics, and more:

In order to achieve your goals by applying any new technologies, today’s (and tomorrow’s) manufacturing engineers have to understand both the technology of manufacturing and the underlying principles of manufacturing — which are different but complementary.

According to Hardt, the key principles which distinguish manufacturing from other activities are flow, and variation:

Flow is the movement of materials — into, through and out of the factory. So you are also concerned about your supply chain. And we study these principles at the process, factory, supply chains and even business levels.”

Variation refers to all these factors that cause uncertainty at these four levels of the enterprise. “Going to Industry 4.0 may improve the accuracy, reliability and accessibility of the data. But the goal of all that data should always be to reduce variations, control flow, and to do so meeting demand at a sustainable cost. Your ability to control variation is essential. So you have to have good quality control processes.”

When it comes to getting to 4.0, there are slow incremental steps you can take with a focus on, “how can this tech help us in these areas, reduce variation, improve our ability to flow more material, to be more flexible.” He continues,”People need to know what they are doing not just in their tasks, but from a global point of view.”

What Should Today’s Engineers Be Studying?

For students interested in this movement, Hard advises that you study the technologies that you find the most interesting —  whether it’s robotics, additive manufacturing, instrumentation, and of course, manufacturing. MIT’s Master of Engineering in Advanced Manufacturing and Design (MEngM) degree, for instance, is a year-long program that prepares graduate students to become engineering leaders in manufacturing. There’s also an online version of the Principles of Manufacturing half of the program as one of MIT’s online MITx MicroMasters programs.

So, will there be an Industry 5.0?

“Yes,” says Hardt. “This is not a step function, it’s the next point on the curve that’s been given a name.” However, Hardt adds, “These underlying activities will never change, I predict, because they define manufacturing.”

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