Industry 4.0 and Software-Only Machine Automation

In the same way that Amazon transformed retailing and Google dominated advertising by applying a tightly integrated digital strategy to a traditional industry, Industry 4.0 seeks to completely innovate manufacturing forever by implementing similar digital strategies that Amazon and Google did.  Machine builders and manufacturers that embrace Industry 4.0 techniques stand to dominate their respective vertical markets and those that don’t will be rendered uncompetitive.  Industry 4.0 creates new product opportunities for manufacturing companies by transforming their products into products-as-a-service, by offering unprecedented customizability and value for their customers, by creating new revenue streams, by gaining new insights to streamline their business practices, and by improving overall efficiency.

This blog post describes the drivers behind Industry 4.0, and how relying on an open, software-based machine automation platform rather than the traditional hardware-based controllers is the key to creating smart factories that can succeed.

What is Industry 4.0?

Officially, Industry 4.0 is defined by the German government as the strategy to digitize and to integrate the entire manufacturing value chain in order to provide maximum production, resource efficiency, adaptability and ergonomics, while creating new, chargeable information-driven products to augment the traditional manufacturing process.  This includes cyber-physical systems that create a virtual copy of the physical world, the Internet of Things (IOT), cloud computing, cognitive computing, and the ability to make decentralized decisions for manufacturing optimization.  Ultimately, the goal of Industry 4.0 is to establish a smart factory that is capable of mass customization by capitalizing on the insights gained from raw data that machines collect and to create brand new, profitable, information-based products and services that are derived from the data that is collected.

Successful Industry 4.0 enabled systems are based on software

At the foundation of Industry 4.0, high connectivity and powerful communication capacity are necessary between equipment and services from the sensors at the end-point of a device all they way up to the enterprise servers in order to meet the manufacturing goal of connecting smart factories with all things.  In order to guarantee this goal, high-speed, efficient, and secure communications are required.

The main goal of Industry 4.0 is the integration of all automation information.  From end-point sensors and rolled all the way to the servers, Industry 4.0 defines ways to generate value if the information can be transformed into actionable insights and then the smart edge devices (machine controllers) can execute on these insights.

The implication is that a seamless connection with all enterprise information is required, and the most success will come when the data transmission is implemented from the equipment and control layers up the stack to the manufacturing execution system (MES) and then the enterprise resources planning (ERP) layers and then ultimately to the cloud where artificial intelligence can be applied.   Given this connectivity, the machine fieldbus will be closely monitored at the cloud and enterprise-level in hopes that some actionable insight will be gleaned.  It should be noted, that EtherCAT is now the de facto standard fieldbus in the industry, making it an open, vendor-independent fieldbus that can meet the demands of Industry 4.0.

All the components must work in unison.  Hardware can only offer fixed functions and do not offer the flexibility to make the system adaptable, so successful Industry 4.0 enabled systems must rely on software to serve as the adhesive that will integrate these key components.  In some cases, multiple machine controllers are able to run on a single PC.  For example, in a case where a CNC is loaded by a cobot that relies on vision to place and remove components that are being milled, the CNC controller, the PLC, the vision library and the robot controller are now able to all be on a single PC.

Key Components

There are 6 main levels of execution and information processing.  Starting at top of the hierarchy of Industry 4.0, the four levels include:

  1. Cloud (Artificial Intelligence generates actionable insights and product opportunities)
  2. Enterprise Level (ERP Servers)
  3. Plant Level (Manufacturing Execution Systems or MES)
  4. Cell Level (SCADA)
  5. Machine Level (Machine Automation)
  6. Endpoint level (Sensors, Motors, Drives, IO)

The focus of most Industry 4.0 articles is on the Artificial Intelligence in the cloud but the Machine Level is just as critical because it is where the real architectural breakthrough in information collection, aggregation and secure deliver to the cloud begins.  Choosing the right Machine Automation platform that has the flexibility to deliver on the promise of Industry 4.0 is paramount if a company wants to maximize its chances of success.

At the machine level, there are four key components that work together to allow to maximum efficiency.  They are:

  1. Intelligence, which is the machine’s capacity to operate autonomously.
  2. Security, which refers to the machine’s ability to both avoid and correct processing errors.
  3. Management, which is a machine’s ability to learn from the past and then anticipate future events.
  4. Connectivity, which allows for a machine to interact with other machines and systems. It turns out that only software-based systems can deliver on best integration of multiple controllers.  Further, the optimal systems actually have multiple controllers execute on a single Industrial PC.  Having all controllers on a single PC just makes it simpler to integrate them and this is contrasted to having multiple hardware-based stand-alone controllers that must somehow be integrated – typically through an open PC.

Having a software-based approach comes with a significant number of benefits:

  • Less expensive than having to continually buy new updated hardware
  • Easier to integrate and maintain, allowing for greater productivity and speed to market
  • Easier to scale, as manufacturing companies are able to consolidate infrastructure and add devices without hardware limitations

All of which allows for greater efficiency and productivity at lower costs.

Example of a software-based Machine Automation platform: KINGSTAR

In order to achieve this vision of a multi-controller system running on a single machine, the machine builder needs to have a software platform that supports a plug-and-play approach to Machine Automation Platform for IOT.  One example of this type of platform is KINGSTAR.  KINGSTAR allows a PC to turn into a real-time control system for all equipment, which in turn is able to promote greater efficiency, flexibility and productivity.

It is the only software that provides a truly open machine automation platform that supports plug-n-play, standards and integration features that can satisfy Industry 4.0 demands by offering combined and required features of machine automation, controller integration, Information Sharing and Intelligence Consuming, and an analytics edge.  In addition, it is the industry’s only plus-and-play EtherCAT master that can auto-discover any vendor’s EtherCAT drive, IO or device, and then auto-configure to the environment at startup.


Industry 4.0 is changing the way that consumers buy, and the way that having a software approach will ensure the success of Industry 4.0 enabled systems.