However you define the digital manufacturing transformation of Industry 4.0, one thing is certain – robust, reliable and integrated communications are absolutely fundamental to any successful ‘smart factory’ implementation.

For manufacturers, the ability to allow the key elements of the production process to communicate with each other will be one of the keys to unlocking the significant competitive advantage and growth potential promised by this ‘fourth industrial revolution’. This evolution to ICT (information and communications technology) means that connectivity is becoming an increasingly important issue. For this reason, the control and data-sharing solutions that characterise the next generation of digital machining will be based on connectivity and its close cousin, interoperability.

Digital connectivity

Certainly it is no overstatement to say that digital connectivity solutions will help companies to improve every aspect of the end-to-end production process – from design and production planning through machining to post-process analysis and intelligence. Enhanced connectivity and interoperability will open up new opportunities to improve productivity, profitability and security through better planning and decision-making, more optimised processes, lower levels of waste, increases in efficiency and the rapid identification and resolution of production issues.

The ultimate aim is for machines, software solutions and cutting tools to be interconnected in such a way that they can collect and communicate data from and between every different step of the value chain. If this can be achieved then so-called ‘dark data’ – data that would previously have been either unavailable or, at best, difficult to obtain – can now be analysed. And in line with the old adage that ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it,’ this will allow companies to identify how their production processes can be made less wasteful and more efficient.

In the future it is likely to be possible for tool operators to remotely adjust, control and monitor machining performance quite literally at the cutting edge. By making it much easier to configure and modify key parameters from the machine control or even by using browser interfaces, smartphones and tablets, the time it takes to set up a process for a new machining job would be significantly reduced. Once up and running, the same remote configuration capability could be used to further improve the process until the optimum set-up is achieved. Ultimately, combining digital solutions with data collected from other areas of the machine opens up the potential to build systems that can ‘self-optimise’ with little or no programming or operator intervention.

Open systems

The growth of open systems built around standard APIs (application programming interfaces) and protocols can go a long way to removing barriers to effective connectivity and simplifying the collection and subsequent analysis of key data.

The MTConnect open, royalty-free manufacturing communications protocol, for example, is already helping to deliver interoperability between machines, controls, sensors, other production hardware and software from a variety of suppliers. MTConnect makes it possible for monitoring systems to collect data in a consistent format from a variety of machines irrespective of machine builder. In the future, tools that offer ‘plug-and-play’ integration into existing software environments through open APIs that support two-way connectivity could further improve accurate data quality.

Finally, it is worth noting that the ability to collect significantly higher volumes of data than ever before creates the need to present that data in a highly usable manner. This is why the online dashboard is becoming increasingly important. By providing an easy-to-use and easy-to-understand interface, managers can gain a better understanding and insight into what is happening in the workshop and operators can remotely monitor machining processes, control specific tools and secure optimum tool performance.