Q&A: Fourth industrial revolution reinvents manufacturing processes

What is Industry 4.0 and why has it become such a significant trend?

Industry 4.0 represents an opportunity for industrial automation and manufacturing businesses to reinvent their processes of building their products by using new technologies. It’s about having very tight control over the processes and being able to make adjustments based on the real-time information available. This means in the future manufacturing will be much more agile and efficient, both in terms of the resources used, and the quality, reliability and flexibility of the processes.

What are the key challenges that manufacturers are facing and why is Industry 4.0 the answer to those challenges?

There are many different levels of automation, but most manufacturers are planning production in a reactive way with a lot of manual work. In most factories, traceability is not so high, so there is a lack of visibility into exactly what is happening now; which products are being produced on which machine with which components and resources. In the end, this poses problems in quality and traceability. With Industry 4.0 all these things will be much easier. It will provide much more flexibility and a high level of quality, traceability and real-time visibility. Downtime is also much lower because you are able to plan better and do preventive maintenance.

How will Industry 4.0 transform industrial industries and why is u-blox’s technology important to that?

u-blox is a wireless company and wireless technology enables the flexibility you need for Industry 4.0. If you are moving assets or products around, you don’t need to think about what to do with the devices that are collecting and providing all of the information you need to adjust your manufacturing. It just moves with it. You don’t want to start wiring up and equip manufacturing lines with wires for sensors and modems. It’s much cheaper to have a wireless environment available for you.

u-blox is a wireless company and wireless technology enables the flexibility you need for Industry 4.0

Using wireless components, there is also nobody mistakenly unplugging the cable and suddenly nothing works. u-blox has a complete portfolio in the sense that we support all the normal cellular standards, including new ones such as LTE Cat M1 and narrowband internet of things (NB-IoT), particular to Industry 4.0 connections.

We also provide wireless solutions for the non-licensed spectrum – wi-fi, Bluetooth and so on – so we can really provide a solution that covers the whole palette. At the same time, we have our positioning products enabling very high accuracy on asset-tracking and timing. u-blox has also always focused on reliability and high quality, which is very important as it’s the link that could break the whole manufacturing chain.

How can manufacturing companies demonstrate return on investment when moving towards internet of things and automation technologies?

Sit down and do the maths. The hardware itself has become a lot cheaper than it was, and you can get cloud storage and processing for basically no money, so treating the data is fairly cheap too. Getting the data from point A to point B with wireless connectivity has also become very cheap.

We are seeing applications where customers are paying in the low single-digit dollars a year for data connectivity. Then there’s the savings; if a manufacturing line is down for a couple of hours or days because of maintenance or lack of needed components, the cost of that is significant. On top of that, by closing the loop and doing real-time manufacturing even better, you can reduce the amount of raw materials and final products you have to stock thereby improving your cash flow.

These numbers are relatively easy to justify compared with the investment that you have to put in. You don’t have to dive into too many nitty-gritty details before you see that it’s actually a good return on investment. On top of this come savings from improved quality.

When connecting so many devices, what are the security challenges and how can u-blox address them?

The challenges are the same as in any computer network; the more you get dependent on it and the more you connect things together, the bigger the impact if something goes wrong. And because of this, at u-blox we feel that security is a very important topic.

My personal view on this is that it’s probably something that most people neglect because as long as everything goes well, you don’t know if you have bad security. It’s not until it comes to bite you that it’s a real problem and then it’s too late. We have taken this very seriously and have defined five security principles that we are working on implementing across our product lines, and taking care of when we develop new products. This chain of trust covers fairly basic but important topics, such as assuring our devices have Secure Boot, which is a certification that the firmware is authentic, has not been modified and cannot be downgraded.

Another important one is Firmware over the Air (FOTA). It is in my opinion impossible to be able to predict everything from day one. You cannot secure a device if you cannot update it. So FOTA and signed firmware assures you get the right software image, which is very important. These and others are the initiatives we are working on across the product lines and the product centres to address security challenges.

What is u-blox’s role in helping customers and partners prepare for Industry 4.0?

Our role is to provide them with the products they need on wireless communication and positioning, with a very high level of reliability and quality. And to be a reliable supplier for years to come. Rather than propriety technology that is out of business in two years, we deliver solutions based on standards in industrial and automotive-level quality. We guarantee the supply chain; if you get something today, you will be able to get it next year too. This is very important because it’s not consumer electronics, like a toaster you throw out next year, it’s a very expensive, high-tech manufacturing line you have. It has to run for years to come and you need to be able to keep it effective. u-blox is playing an important role in delivering these key components reliably for cellular communication, short-range communication and positioning.

For more information about u-blox and Industry 4.0 please visit u-blox.com