Data Integration Essential in the Supply Chain as Industry 4.0 Takes Hold

Michael Clark
Mon, Jul 10, 2017
Data integration is critical in today's complex supply chain and Industry 4.0 environments.
Data integration is critical in today's complex supply chain and Industry 4.0 environments.

The growing Industry 4.0 movement offers the promise of connected devices bringing applications, IT services, robotics systems and humans together in a world where data moves between stakeholders at a breakneck pace. This would result in an overhaul of industrial processes, as increased access to data can lead to a greater degree of flexibility and responsiveness within the sector.

Network World went so far as to call Industry 4.0 the equivalent of digital transformation for manufacturing, and explained that adopting Industry 4.0 capabilities relies heavily on interconnected supply chain, enterprise resource planning and production systems to create greater operational efficiency. Looking down the road, this could even allow for machine autonomy within the manufacturing sector.

The need for data integration is acute in this environment. If robots in production lines are supposed to automatically adjust processes based on updates coming in from the warehouse, the different data systems and applications governing those areas need to be able to share information. Furthermore, all of this data must be visible and actionable for the human managers keeping everything running smoothly. Essentially, Industry 4.0 depends on complete data visibility, something that is impossible to achieve without technological interoperability.

Considering the Need for Interoperability
Data is central to the efficiency gains that touted by the Industry 4.0 movement. The rise of connected devices and smart systems isn't just about gathering data, it's about being able to put that information to use to drive better operations. For example, monitoring devices on production line machines that track key maintenance statistics aren't just there for record keeping, they need to integrate with maintenance management systems so employees can identify warning signs and schedule work to avoid a disruption. However, those work processes depend on having parts and supplies available in the warehouse, so the entire supply chain system must also integrate with field services and maintenance applications. This type of ecosystem puts an emphasis on being able to collect data in the most intuitive ways possible and integrate it across lines of the business. In most cases, the ERP system serves as the centerpiece of the arrangement.

Ned Hill, an economist at The Ohio State University, told Network World that Industry 4.0 goes well beyond connectivity.

"Everything that takes place currently within the ERP, you're going to need to … understand how that ends up feeding into your production process itself," Hill told the news source. "All of [a manufacturer's] equipment has to be integrated into their supply chain. So there is everything from purchasing to delivery to the way in which stuff gets stacked to go into the plant. All of that is going to be tied-in wirelessly. And traceability across the entire process to finished goods is also going to be part of this."

Being able to integrate data across the business creates new opportunities to drive efficiency and create revenue that weren't necessarily available in the past. Robert McCutcheon, Pittsburgh managing partner for PricewaterhouseCoopers told Network World that many manufacturers are taking a fresh look at their core business models in light of Industry 4.0. This includes moving beyond a product-focused methodology and looking at how they can shift their operations into service delivery.

The importance - and potential impact - of integration in Industry 4.0 was echoed in an eeNews Europe report that explained people often end up emphasizing automation when they talk about the rise of Industry 4.0. While automation is a relevant and highly visible topic in this segment, focusing so heavily on it leads to a lack of recognition around the importance of data integration.

Simplifying Operations
The idea that data will be whizzing back and forth between robots, humans and applications can leave anybody's mind spinning, but in practice, it should end up simplifying everyday operations for manufacturers. eeNews Europe explained that data integration should automate many of the backend processes involving getting information to the right places at the right times, allowing for much more visibility within operations. As a result, real-time data integration allows for simpler, easier decision-making processes because everybody has the data they need, whether that information is from the supply chain or the production floor.

Integration is particularly challenging and important in the supply chain. Organizations must consider a few key issues when it comes to supply chain data management, including:

  • Mobile data collection: How will users in field locations or accepting deliveries in the warehouse quickly, easily and safely record inventory levels?
  • Data synchronization: How will users in remote facilities - in some cases ones that don't have access to a consistent internet connections - stay abreast of what is happening in other parts of the business or make updates on their own?
  • Picking: What's the easiest way to have workers update inventory levels when they grab an item from the warehouse shelf?
  • ERP integration: How will managers and other users predominantly working within an ERP see what is happening across the supply chain if data remains siloed in warehouse management systems and similar applications?

These are just a few key questions businesses need to answer as they work to implement Industry 4.0 technologies and procedures. Any gap in data integration and interoperability becomes problematic when organizations begin to automate operations across multiple lines of the business. Furthermore, any area of the company that is not fully integrated into the rest of the ecosystem can quickly become a bottleneck, sapping the value derived from technical innovation.

RFgen is among the leaders in driving the interoperability gains needed for Industry 4.0. Our ERP mobile integration solutions allow the ERP to talk to any Windows, iOS or Android mobile device, as well as other automated machinery (scales, carousels, PLCs, etc.) across the business, particularly in the supply chain. Furthermore, our specialized warehouse and supply chain management systems offer everything from voice picking and license plating to remote facility management and synchronization. Industry 4.0 can lead to simplified, streamlined operations, but only if the data integration is handled in the backend. That's where we can step in and help organizations develop the technological ecosystem they need to move data between user groups.

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