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I4.0 and digitization solutions are also available to Portuguese SMEs

28 September 2020
Article by Domingos Moreira, responsible for business development for product development at INEGI.

"Industry 4.0", "digitization", and "internet of things" are ubiquitous words today, and for good reason. These are concepts that encompass a wide spectrum of technologies and applications, in constant development, and that translate into countless opportunities to add value to products and processes, from the reduction of time-to-market, mass customization of products and rapid scalability of productive systems.

However, these new technologies still face some acceptance difficulties. On the one hand, they are perfectly valued by specialists and qualified companies / organizations with the muscle to implement complex solutions, supported by the various fields of science and engineering. On the other hand, however, we still observe a great reserve and hesitation on the part of some decision makers, namely regarding the capitalization and the initial investment, which, for the most complex cases, still tends to be high.

The tendency to evaluate technologies from the point of view of direct return in the short or medium term, tends to destroy the desire to implement new solutions of this nature. And for companies with less investment capacity, the initial effort required invalidates any attempt.

We are now at a stage when technology is maturing rapidly, having been implemented in all advanced sectors of the industry, such as the automotive and pharmaceutical industry. However, the solutions of the suppliers with the greatest expression in the market are, in most cases, little suited to the reality of the Portuguese industrial fabric, whose transition to the reality of 4.0 has been slow. And even in large companies, there is a noticeable gap between the need that motivates a market consultation and the result obtained.

A demanding reality requires alternative approaches

The market is familiar with standard solutions, but studies show1 that not all projects are successful and that the identification of case studies and the integration of solutions, as well as data management, are the biggest difficulties. The projects implementing 4.0 concepts in the industry are so complex that the integration of the different solutions in harmony is often the most complicated step.

In addition, the requirements, needs and management indicators of the different teams are often contradictory, and programming, being a logical process, handles this type of approach poorly. To this extent, one of the biggest and more complex stages of the process is the survey of needs and their transformation into requirements and specifications, in line with the different levels of performance.

In line with this point, the heterogeneity of the systems forces an integration process, since programming languages and communication protocols are often distinct and sometimes owned by brands, creating restrictions on data access that have to be considered. Sometimes it requires the integration of complete elements and sensors, which operate in parallel with the equipment, bypassing the lack of access to older or closed systems, guaranteeing access to the necessary information.

In addition to this challenge is the difficulty related to data management and quality, with studies indicating weaknesses in this point, with the need for investment in specialized hardware and redundancy systems that guarantee the collection and processing of really useful information. This is because the data must reflect the reality of the processes, and there should be no margin in their collection for extrapolations that mislead their users.

When these implementations are done correctly and in an informed manner, however, they result in natural gains in efficiency, product quality and better production management capacity.

Most SMEs seek to implement i4.0 projects to improve productivity, use relevant data from their process, and mainly reduce costs. In this sense, introducing technologies in less "prepared" companies involves structuring the implementation with a focus on this type of results, but also considering the technical implementation needs, which may not be obvious.

Building solutions tailored to the reality of SMEs

The reality of Portuguese SMEs requires a simplified and personalized approach on the road to 4.0. That is why, recognizing this need, INEGI has been committed to carrying out projects with companies in a partnership logic, based on the definition of stages, with short-term results, and with reduced investment.

This compromise is achieved using simple solutions, with relatively accessible instrumentation technologies, and open-source or tailored computer platforms. Retrofitting, that is, the adaptation or digitization of old equipment, also has great advantages, both in terms of capital costs, and even from an environmental point of view with the extension of life cycles.

In this context, it is also relevant to take into account the cultural barrier. Since it implies changes in the shopfloor, and in the way the teams operate in the field, it is crucial, for successful projects, to involve the teams in the process and dedicate time to training.

Contrary to what many suppose, more than depending on the capacity for large investments, the success of these projects depends on the presence of experienced multidisciplinary teams and on technological planning involving management bodies, perfectly aligned with the company's objectives. This, together with the proximity between specialists and end users, constitutes a recipe for success for the implementation of transformation projects for 4.0 Industry in SMEs.

1 Beechan Research INSIGHT Report: "Why loT projects fail: towards new business value”