Industry 4.0 in the post-Covid era

Jon Lawson

While the global Covid-19 pandemic may be far from over, the manufacturing industry is focussing on getting back on a stable production basis. In many cases, the recovery is more reliant on the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and associated devices than ever, as Martin Keenan explains. 

Dealing with change is a reliable constant in the world of business technology, and the increasingly rapid move towards Industry 4.0 methodologies has certainly created plenty of new ways of working. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought substantial change to most industries, disrupting towns and cities across the globe, inevitably having a significant impact on almost all levels of business, from SME to global corporates, corner shops to heavy industry. However, many of the inherent benefits of IIoT have become even more desirable in this difficult period, spurring a wider demand for IoT solutions.  

An obvious benefit of IIoT is the ability to manage complex industrial processes remotely, something that might have been seen as an aspirational efficiency driver in 2019, but in 2020 is increasingly an essential part of daily operations. In addition, the adoption of predictive maintenance principles - thanks to IIoT - now has an additional benefit, in that maintenance crews can be allocated specific time slots and locations that are appropriately socially distanced rather than operating in a less formalised manner. Entirely remote diagnosis and troubleshooting by expert engineers has suddenly become a defacto way of working for thousands, while working remotely has been the daily reality for literally millions of office workers around the world.   

Covid: now employee safety takes centre stage

This perfect storm of factors pointing to IIoT might explain why one in three enterprises is increasing their investment as a result of Covid-19, twice as many as will be decreasing investment, according to a Microsoft report. The report also noted that adoption has surged in the last year from 85% to 91%, with retail, energy and manufacturing industries leading the charge. Manufacturing has the most ambitious plans over the next two years, with 67% versus the average of 64% planning adoption, according to Microsoft.   

Employees are - perhaps needless to say - the most important assets of any organisation, and it is in the field of employee safety that IIoT can deliver huge benefits. Ensuring social distancing and effective contact tracing is key in most co-located physical workplaces, and sensors teamed with a local network such as LoRaWAN can automate this relatively elegantly. Even in wider settings, the concept of personal tracking has been adopted by several governments, including South Korea and Hong Kong, which are using wristband trackers to help enforce quarantine. Countries from Belgium to Lichtenstein have run pilots to ensure social distancing via vibrating wristbands, and in the latter case to monitor vital signs for key illness symptoms.

Office wearables of tomorrow, today

UK-based robotics group Tharsus has developed a necklace-style wearable for office use, which alerts when workers get too close to each other. The devices and accompanying dashboard - Bump - is being trialled at the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry. Apart from the safety aspect, the devices also overcome the privacy objections attached to tracking apps. Another interesting UK initiative comes from Vodafone, that has developed an automated thermal camera system in partnership with Digital Barriers. The devices can screen the body temperature of up to 100 people/minute as they enter buildings. Linked with devices such as front-of-house laptops and tablets or reception displays, alerts can be double-checked without disrupting business or public sector customer flows.    

Next gen networks to accelerate?

While the impact of the pandemic will certainly be felt reverberating throughout global supply chains and verticals for months if not years to come, there are areas where the impact is not at all clear. The next generation of mobile networks - 5G and WiFi 6/AX - may have been delayed by a variety of recent events, most notably in Europe the prohibiting of Huawei hardware, but appetite has if anything increased. Industrial trials of private LTE/5G networks have not slowed, while the requirement for flexibility in upcoming IIoT deployments has certainly not gone away. As a recent Informa report noted, “One of the major drivers of 5G, alongside adjacent devices and technologies such as AGVs, machine vision and 3D printing, will be the transition to flexible production. The experience of Covid-19 may well accelerate this trend.”

Data and privacy: the challenges ahead

One certainty is that the additional layers of stakeholders in these developing smart spaces will create additional complexity. Distancing and temperature management tools will inevitably be sourced from different manufacturers to existing network hardware, leading to challenges around data management, integration and standardisation. Enterprises will need to ensure that data integration methodologies are robust, and that data cleaning and analysis is enhanced to manage the additional information, as well as remember that privacy is paramount - potentially an interesting challenge for IIoT networks that were not necessarily designed with this contingency in mind. 

It is clear that the core benefits of IIoT are even more desirable to enterprises in the post-Covid era, and while there are substantial challenges to overcome, there are significant benefits to be gained at almost every level. Indeed, the ‘new normal’ is likely to involve an accelerated update of IIoT strategies where possible - especially where maximising employee efficiency and public health are concerned.

• The author is the technical director at IIoT specialist Avnet Abacus.