Making the most of Industry 4.0

The latest machine tool technologies enable Industry 4.0 benefits to be adopted by SMEs
The latest machine tool technologies enable Industry 4.0 benefits to be adopted by SMEs

In this article Kareema Hilton, lightweight machining theme lead at the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland discusses how the machining sector can be helped to embrace the benefits of Industry 4.0.

The potential benefits of Industry 4.0 are well-known and have been discussed for more than a decade, yet it would be fair to say that many manufacturers are still getting to grips with what it means for them and how they can go about implementing it within their businesses.

This is especially true of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which, generally speaking, do not have the time and resources to trial fundamental changes to the way they operate their shopfloors.

Nevertheless, for businesses of any size in the UK, greater adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies will be key to maintaining competitiveness on the global stage – and the same is true for many of our European neighbours.

For those unfamiliar, Industry 4.0 – sometimes also referred to as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) – it is the name given to the fourth industrial revolution. While previous iterations were characterised by steam power, mass production, and the introduction of electronics, respectively, Industry 4.0 is about connecting different technologies, using analytics, artificial intelligence, robotics, and automation, as well as the introduction of tools such as digital twins to give companies greater control over the shopfloor.

While these can seem like intimidating concepts for the machining sector, they come with a lot of opportunities. They can greatly enhance factory and process productivity, efficiency, and flexibility, enabling more intelligent decision-making and customisation of products. Not only that but giving new and existing staff access to the latest technology can help manufacturers attract and retain talent, while dispelling some of the preconceptions many people still have of the industry.

However, research on machining companies in Europe has found that they are not as prepared for Industry 4.0 as their counterparts in China and North America, where the adoption of digital technologies has already begun at scale. 

North-West Europe – an area comprising of the UK, Ireland, Northern France, the Benelux nations, Western Germany, and Switzerland – has some 6,800 SMEs in its machining sector, employing 135,000 full-time equivalent jobs and turning over a combined £20.6 billion (€24 billion). It is, therefore, vital that we maintain these businesses’ competitiveness, which in an increasingly technology-driven world means embracing and implementing new digital systems and processes.

Machining 4.0

In response to this challenge, Interreg – one of the European Union’s key development programmes – developed the Machining 4.0 project to increase machining SMEs’ knowledge of Industry 4.0 technologies and support them with innovation. It focused on knowledge transfer, delivering hands-on experience and experimentation with new technologies, and supporting the transformation process.

The €4.25 million initiative involved nine partners from across North-West Europe, including the project lead Belgium-based Sirris. It helped more than 500 SMEs in the region's machining sector, with the University of Strathclyde's Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) – part of the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS) Group – acting as the UK partner on the four-year project, which recently concluded.

Kareema Hilton, lightweight machining theme lead at the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland
Kareema Hilton, lightweight machining theme lead at the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland

We brought a blend of expertise in advanced machining strategies, materials characterisation and residual stress and joined forces with the Manufacturing Technologies Association (MTA) to help identify businesses in the UK which needed support. Through the programme, NMIS’s machining, additive, and remake team supported nine UK small and medium-sized businesses with innovative machining techniques.

Our team developed a game-changing industry demonstrator showcasing the possibilities of using low-cost sensors and intelligent fixturing, combined with advanced machining strategies, to overcome distortion challenges during machining. This demonstrated significant cost and material savings, as parts would be ‘right first time’, and component scrap would be mitigated.

We also created a novel stability demonstrator to illustrate how manufacturers can control the speed and frequency of their milling operations to significantly improve part quality and productivity, while also listening for chatter. Using the demonstrator, we changed cutting parameters on a machine tool and programmed it to play the rock band Deep Purple's ‘Smoke on the Water’.

SMEs and Industry 4.0

However, rock music is not for everyone. So, we worked with nine UK companies to explore how Industry 4.0 principles could be implemented to solve some of their individual challenges.

One business on the programme, Edinburgh-based Streamline Cycling, produces rim covers for bicycles and wanted to explore improvements that could be made to its machining process. The NMIS team partnered the company with Quickgrind in Gloucestershire and undertook tap testing – an analysis technique used to optimise cutting parameters – to provide insight on the stability and rigidity of its machines. The results will allow the company to explore inputting sensors into its router machine for cycling rims on bikes.

The National Manufacturing Institute Scotland was a partner on the four-year project to bring the benefits of Industry 4.0 to SMEs across Europe
The National Manufacturing Institute Scotland was a partner on the four-year project to bring the benefits of Industry 4.0 to SMEs across Europe

Founder Daniel Cain told us: “The experience with Quickgrind and NMIS was excellent. For them to reach out and offer tools and provide the assistance they did has helped us to manufacture the parts faster, have longer tool life and speed up the whole process.”

We also helped Productive Machines, a company in South Yorkshire, increase the speed and efficiency of making customised PPE face masks using analytical tools.

Sales executive at Productive Machines, Thomas Goldthorpe, comments: "Rather than the mask being a standard shape, our customer MyMaskFit wanted to make it more comfortable and breathable when wearing it. We decided to participate in the project because we wanted to help MyMaskFit to enhance the process to make the parts more quickly and minimise the waste compared with a standard process.”

Another business had identified that the layout of its factory could be more efficient. Through the use of a factory scan, NMIS created a 3D digital replica of the company’s premises in SolidWorks, allowing them to move equipment virtually prior to making any physical alterations in its real factory. This helped the manufacturer improve production control and optimise its workshop.

In some instances though it is more about helping companies to understand what is available to them in the world of Industry 4.0. One CNC-focused SME wanted to develop its team’s knowledge of machining operations and processes to then create a learning plan, which would complement their existing knowledge of robotic programming. 

What next?

The Machining 4.0 programme may have formally drawn to a close, but there are still ways for companies in the UK – and North-West Europe – to engage with it. The pioneering demonstrators that were developed along with the consortium partners will continue to help the machining industry, allowing manufacturers to learn more about how their products and processes can be enhanced through Industry 4.0 technologies and concepts.

In addition, a bank of valuable resources has been created to support companies looking to adopt new technologies and improve their competitiveness in the machining industry. Any company interested can find more information at:

Industry 4.0 is an incredible opportunity for the UK machining sector – but only if it is embraced. Otherwise, it will turn into a risk, as other countries steal a march by adopting what it has to offer. Programmes like Machining 4.0 are just a starting point for building knowledge and identifying the challenges it can help solve. Now it is the time to turn those ideas into reality.

National Manufacturing Institute Scotland

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