A recent problem at the German transmission maker ZF Friedrichshafen illustrates the potential.
Wooden crates of ZF transmissions began turning up damaged in China about a year and a half ago, stumping the supplier. Traditionally, fixing the problem would require redesigning thousands of boxes to make them sturdier.
Instead, ZF's Openmatics division used a 4.0 solution. It attached a $45 Bluetooth transmitter to each box to track it remotely in real time to see exactly where the damage was occurring.
"We found out that it was in a Chinese port, always in the same port on the same crane," said Thomas Roesch, the managing director of Openmatics. "So we could talk to our partners about correcting the problem, instead of investing X amounts of euros to make the boxes more stable."
Renault Group is investing about $470 million to add data-driven tools across its dozens of plants by 2020.
"We are rolling it out, military-style," Thierry Brancard, Renault's digital officer for manufacturing, said. Eventually the solutions will be shared with Renault's alliance partners, Nissan and Mitsubishi.
Renault's first 4.0 initiative is to connect the workforce on the factory floor using tablet computers. "This gives the manager mobility, which saves time," he said. "But we also want to bring technology to the guy on the production line who is building the car or the engine."
The tablets, affixed to posts, let workers know what kind of car, with what options, is coming down Renault's flexible production lines. "There's a very simple user interface to be able to ask for help, to report a problem or to get information from what they have to do one, two or three cars ahead," Brancard said.
Renault is also adding sensors to old equipment to avoid downtime. "Everything has a motor or a chain that can be monitored for temperature, vibration or any physical value," he said.
The next step for Renault is what's known as predictive maintenance, in which algorithms forecast when problems might occur. At its Dacia plant in Pitesti, Romania, Renault engineers recently detected worrisome vibrations in an otherwise healthy stamping press. "If the press had a breakdown, the consequences could be huge," Brancard said. But a data examination found that the repairs could wait until the weekend, when the plant was going to be idle anyway.
Sensors and software that gather and process data in real time are helping Renault squeeze efficiency out of every nook and cranny of the supply chain. "We want to track everything from head to toe, from suppliers to aftersales," Brancard said. "Some of our systems are quite old, and we were piloting the supply chain with data snapshots taken every day or every week."
Renault is routinely implanting sensors into its packaging, partly to track its progress from plant to plant, but also to keep track of returnables and racks.
"The big benefit is to know exactly where your assets are and avoiding buying new ones if you don't need to," he said.
Another company bullish about Industry 4.0 is the Spanish metal parts supplier Gestamp. "It gives us lots of opportunity to increase the efficiency of the plants," Francisco Riberas, executive chairman, said at press event in Barcelona in June.