Can Composites Be Part of the Industry 4.0 Revolution?

At Rock West Composites outside of Salt Lake City, UT, workers use composite raw materials to manufacture things like carbon fiber tubing and sheets. They use all the latest tools and technologies to do what they do. Could Rock West do even better by embracing the Industry 4.0 Revolution? More importantly, is it feasible for them to get on board with Industry 4.0?

Similar questions are being asked throughout the composites industry as we turn the page into 2018. The Industry 4.0 revolution started a few years back, but the composites industry has been slow to get on board. It’s not that the industry doesn’t want to, it’s just that composites manufacturing and fabricating are incredibly complex processes that don’t lend themselves well to Industry 4.0 fundamentals.

As Industry 4.0 evolves over time, composites manufacturers and fabricators will be more apt to join in. Some suggest that 2018 could be a pivotal year for moving in that direction. Yet how much progress the industry makes in the coming 12 months will rely heavily on how automation is incorporated.

  • Industry 4.0 Defined

Among the many challenges Industry 4.0 poses to the composites industry is the very definition of the revolution itself. There is a consensus that Industry 4.0 is the fourth global industrial revolution. It follows previous revolutions driven by steam-powered machinery, assembly-line production, and computerization. This new industrial revolution is based in automation. Unfortunately, there is very little agreement beyond this consensus.

Some Industry 4.0 experts claim that the Internet of Things (IoT) is an indispensable part of Industry 4.0. Others say the IoT is negotiable. Still others incorporate Big Data into the new revolution, implying that it could not take place without robust data systems.

The composites industry probably doesn’t care much about the actual definition of Industry 4.0. But for the sake of clarity, it might be best to rely on the common European definition, given that the term ‘Industry 4.0’ was coined in Germany. That definition, as explained by i-scoop is as follows:

“Industry 4.0 represents the fourth industrial revolution in manufacturing and industry. Industry 4.0 is the current industrial transformation with automation, data exchanges, cloud, cyber-physical systems, robots, Big Data, AI, IoT and (semi-)autonomous industrial techniques to realize smart industry and manufacturing goals in the intersection of people, new technologies and innovation.”

  • Benefits to the Composites Industry

The complexities of composite manufacturing fabrication are observed in everything from raw materials to the equipment used in the manufacturing fabricating process. Some forms of composite fabrication are, by nature, labor-intensive as well. These are all things that must be considered.

Having said that, the complex nature of composites also suggests that the industry would benefit more greatly than other industries by adopting Industry 4.0. According to Composites World’s Dale Brosius, adoption of Industry 4.0 would lead to a drastic reduction in manufacturing and fabrication costs. Brosius believes that would be a game-changer in terms of market penetration.

His point is hard to argue. Just take the automotive sector, for example. Auto makers would love to rely more heavily on carbon fiber and other composite materials to increase fuel mileage without sacrificing durability or performance. The only thing holding them back is price.

There is little doubt that Industry 4.0 is an industrial revolution we now find ourselves in the midst of. Whether or not the composites industry joins the revolution in the short term remains to be seen. If so, it could be a launching point for a significant expansion of composites in areas never before thought possible.