More to the point why should you, the customer, care?
At its simplest level, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0, or 4IR is about automation and connectivity. This should lead to faster, more efficient manufacturing and so advantageous pricing.
Alternatively – or additionally – it might also mean that products can be made in a different way. For example, new processes might allow late customisation or configuration, faster delivery, or enhanced quality. Value is then added to the product in a different way.
EMS providers should by now recognise that increased "servitisation" is at the heart of Industry 4.0. That, in a nutshell, means putting the customers' needs first. So, the key is to identify what is important to you, and how this fits in with the plans you have for your products and, indeed, your company and customers.
Here are a few questions you might want to ask your EMS provider the next time you get together:
1. Do they have an Industry 4.0 roadmap?
Most essentially, do you feel your supplier is keeping up with the changes and will remain competitive? Particularly in the UK, there has often been a misplaced pride in sticking with old technology. How often have you heard someone proudly proclaim: "Look, we finished paying for this machine 10 years ago and it's still going!" There is no doubt that this next industrial revolution will lead to more cost-effective manufacturing and enhanced services. Those without a plan to invest in equipment that is capable of providing this are unlikely to survive and at the current pace of change, they are not likely to last very long.
2. Does the roadmap match your product requirements?
Key to an EMS' service offering is the ability to actually manufacture the products you want. Their plant might be "smart" but is it adding the value you need? Their roadmap should take into account the types of materials and components that you'll be using and the process challenges they may bring. Will your electronics be shrinking, will 3D printing replace your machined parts? Will you be wanting larger volumes on shorter lead times, or maybe smaller batches of lots of different variants?
Your EMS provider should be asking you these types of questions now, and you really need to tell them - as far as practically possible – as it will form part of their case to invest. Naturally, there will be some information on your future plans that will too sensitive to divulge, but the more you can share, the better.
3. Does their roadmap match your service requirements?
A key part of producing a "smart" factory is providing a digital infrastructure behind the machinery that physically makes the products. This can cover everything from automating customer and supplier orders, transfer and sharing of data and engineering drawings, production and quality reporting and so on. So, how do you see this "business to business" interaction working in the future, and will your supplier be compatible with your plans?
For example, do you envisage placing orders from a smart phone app, or perhaps using your phone to scan a product's barcode and get its full build history, test results and certificate of conformance? Alongside this, will your basic service requirements change – for example, more emphasis on late configuration, customisation, repairs, recycling or upgrade kits alongside new product build?
You might also consider how much visibility you need of the procurement, manufacturing and delivery processes. New digital systems place great emphasis on "big data", allowing real time information to assist decisions in the production process, but this could be shared with customers too. All these things may not have much impact on the production equipment, but will certainly test the business systems behind them.
4. What about security?
With software stored on the "cloud" (a nice of way of saying someone else's computer) and the Internet of Things (IoT) meaning all manufacturing machines could be connected and linked to the digital infrastructure, the possibilities for security breaches seem endless and, if you really think about it, downright scary.
So, how can you be sure that someone can’t hack your EMS' canteen toaster and steal all your product design files? Ask whether your EMS provider has an auditable security policy and can demonstrate how your IP will be kept safe and secure.
Industry 4.0 is, of course, a huge topic and provides much to think about. Hopefully, the questions above will give you a starting point for future conversations. Above all though, it is important to realise that a successful roadmap is born only from close cooperation between the EMS provider and customer, to provide a sound strategy that will see both enjoy the benefits of an ever more technologically advanced future.
Image by Harold Litwiler