As always, there has been a steady improvement in processes and machines. In parallel, there has been a quiet ascent of the Industry 4.0 phenomenon. I find the latter noteworthy.
Most of the Indian manufacturing industry has traditionally suffered from low productivity. We use the same processes and machines that the world uses, and yet, are known as a nation for poor productivity because our downtimes are so high.
In most organisations, the IT network covers all the functions outside the shop floor — accounts, materials, sales, etc. Managers have accurate and up-to-date data on all these functions and can make quick decisions in these areas. The shop floor, however, is an island in this sea of IT. One will find dozens of computers in departments supporting the shop floor, but only a handful of computers on the shop floor. This is illogical. Money is made on machines on the shop floor, but computerised data gathering and analysis is restricted to the office and does not extend to the machines.
As the size of a manufacturing organisation increases, managers have increasingly less idea about what is happening. Today, data is captured from machines manually and fed into computers for generating reports for management to make decisions. It is typically available the next day, inaccurate or deliberately falsified, and is in any case, too late to make course corrections in case of sudden problems. Machine downtimes in shop floors with short batch quantities can be as high as 70%, but the top management gets ridiculously high OEE numbers from down below, that they have to believe.
Industry 4.0 fixes this problem. It directly connects machines to computers. Production and productivity numbers are shown instantly to various levels of decision makers. For situations requiring immediate attention, alarm messages are sent to concerned individuals or machines even stopped. The system can be extended to ERP, logistics, maintenance, scheduling, etc.
First the bad news: Industry 4.0 requires quite radical culture changes in the organisation, from top to bottom. Industry 4.0 is all about data – data that is larger in quantity and that which is instantaneous. Personnel at all levels in the shop floor have to look at far more numbers than they do now and act fast upon them. This requires a big cultural change.
And now the good news: Organisations that have implemented Industry 4.0 have seen radical improvements in productivity. Some are doing in two shifts what they earlier did in three shifts. Some have frozen new machine purchases and are making more with the same number of machines, while some have reduced consumables or energy usage. But all have a dramatically improved profitability. Implemented across the nation as a ‘must have’ instead of a ‘good-to-have’, Industry 4.0 can turn us into a nation of high productivity.
Yes, Industry 4.0 is spreading across India, but not fast enough. There is enormous confusion about what it means, how it helps and whether it is affordable and useful for SMEs (the answer is ‘yes, it is’). Central & state governments and trade bodies need to exponentially scale up their efforts in spreading it. What they are doing now is just too feeble and I hope this changes fast.