Digital automation, the Internet of Things and the cloud converge to power the Fourth Industrial Revolution and offer woodworking manufacturers new end-to-end solutions.

By Rich Christianson

Industry 4.0 is one of most the oft-repeated terms in industrial circles these days. But what is it and what does it mean for the North American woodworking industry? What are the potential benefits? And how do small and medium-sized custom woodworking shops – the manufacturers that form the base of the industry’s pyramid – get into the Industry 4.0 game?

These are some of the key questions the Association of Woodworking & Furnishing Suppliers® (AWFS®), sought to answer in commissioning this special report. The overarching goals were to demystify what Industry 4.0 is and to examine why woodworking shops of all sizes, types and locales should not only be paying attention to the Industry 4.0 movement but take action to participate.

In addition to drawing information from a variety of explanatory articles and white papers written about Industry 4.0, this report includes exclusive information gleaned from substantive interviews with a cross-section of experts representing software, machinery and tooling manufacturers serving the North American woodworking industry. These experts offered their market perspectives and provided real-world examples of how their customers are applying Industry 4.0 concepts in their plants.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution
The first known public use of the term Industry 4.0, alternatively known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, was at the Hannover Messe Industrie Fair in Germany in 2011.

The original Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century embraced mechanization powered by water and steam to manufacture products in factories. The conversion to electricity, still considered by many the greatest invention of all time, and introduction of assembly lines epitomized Industry 2.0. Then came the advent of computers and CNC automation that ushered in the digital age of Industry 3.0.

Industry 4.0 leverages the full capacity of the Internet and wi-fi technology to shift digital manufacturing into hyperdrive, setting the stage for creating smart factories. The Internet of Things and cloud computing are enabling the seamless interconnectivity of entire supply chains. CNC machines, robots and other advanced technologies are being integrated into plant-wide networks and administered to ever-more sophisticated ends by a computer, tablet or smart phone anywhere a connection to the Internet can be made.

Industry 4.0 also constantly collects and analyzes machinery data to eliminate or reduce the guesswork for pricing products, managing inventory, and scheduling production and machine maintenance. It raises the bar on lean manufacturing programs by more precisely identifying production bottlenecks that stymie workflow.

In case that’s not enough, Industry 4.0 sets the stage for potentially fulfilling the science fiction vision of factories employing fully autonomous “self-aware” machines. Their artificially intelligent “brains” would allow them to learn and improve by doing and talk to one another to accomplish manufacturing tasks without human interference.

The Internet of Things Meets the Cloud
Two huge drivers of Industry 4.0 are the Internet of Things (IoT) and the cloud.

It is estimated that the Internet of Things (IoT) currently consists of more than 20 billion devices that traditionally have not had an Internet connection. This is on top of billions of personal computers, smart phones, tablets, etc. that connect to the web. Consumer IoT devices include refrigerators, smart TVs, smart speakers, alarm systems toys and an ever-increasing number of other items that are being embedded with sensors and software and have their own IP address to independently connect to the Internet to exchange data over a computer network. The number of IoT devices worldwide is expected to far more than double by 2025.

A subset of IoT is the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). In recent years, woodworking machines have been engineered to join the ranks of IIoT. These include CNC routers, panel saws, edgebanders and potentially any other piece of computerized equipment that can collect, analyze and share relevant production data.

The cloud is a huge interconnected network of powerful servers that allows for large amounts of data to be stored and accessed in real time from remote locations. The cloud, IoT, and the Internet are inextricably intertwined with Industry 4.0.

“The cloud is critical to the Industry 4.0 loop,” said John Park, vice president of industrial sales for SCM Group USA of Duluth, GA. “The fact that you have a machine connected by an ethernet cable to your office or engineering department is not 4.0 at all. But if you are transmitting data to the cloud and can make intelligent decisions about your process online, then you are achieving some level of Industry 4.0. Industry 4.0 is also collectively the Internet of Things allowing us to monitor and control devices anytime from anywhere.”

“The bottom line is we are truly experiencing a digital revolution,” said Roger Shaw chairman of RSA Solutions of Lamar, MO. “You used to be able see the resources between connections. Now it’s so complex because there so many connections of information. Things, including our software, are moving up to the cloud rapidly. At the same time, the supply chain is hooking up better to the Internet. The Internet of Things is incredibly taking over. It’s snowballing. It’s almost breathtaking.”

Mining a Treasure Trove of Data
Major manufacturers of CNC woodworking machinery are leading the charge on Industry 4.0. They have rolled out IoT platforms to their customers that when connected to machines equipped with specially designed sensors can communicate wirelessly and synthesize data within the cloud.

These cloud-based software platforms include Biesse’s Sophia, Homag’s Tapio, C.R. Onsrud’s Osync and SCM’s MT Connect. These IoT platforms collect and analyze important machine data that among other things can help improve production scheduling and workflow.

“The biggest thing for everybody who uses Industry 4.0 platforms like Osync is the gains in all-around efficiency of running your machines,” said Jeff Onsrud, director of sales and business development for C.R. Onsrud of Troutman, NC. “By reviewing the production reports, you may find that while you thought your CNC machine was running 100 percent, it’s only being run 80 percent. Based on this information, you might consider reposting your programs and cutting at a higher feed rate.

“You can also deep dive into any machine to see what jobs were run, how long it took to process and how long it took changing over between jobs. Now you can get a better handle on what that job cost including overtime so that you can develop more accurate estimates in the future.”

Scott Cruickshank, director of software solutions for Stiles Machinery of Grand Rapids, MI, said, “The bottom line is we all want to make more money. Some of the ways we make more money is having our equipment running more effectively. That’s a broad term. Is it the number of parts? Is it minimizing change-over times? The first thing you have to do is start collecting data to understand all of that.”

Cruikshank provided an example of a metal working customer that took a examined historical machine data to determine if it should add additional CNC machining centers. “The shop floor management all thought the machines were running parts at least 80 percent of the time. When they actually started looking at the data, they found the machines were only running 30 percent of the time. They discovered that a lot of efficiency was lost in set-up and staging of materials. They made some changes to their processes instead of buying a new machine.”

“We get more and more requests from people to track production intelligently,” said Jason Varelli, brand sales manager of Biesse of Charlotte, NC. “We provide different types of graphical information as well as hard numbers to very easily show each machine’s efficiency, uptime and downtime. A lot of this information has been available in the machine but the overwhelming number of people had no idea how to get to it. Now with the IoT you can go to your desktop, phone or tablet and see a series of graphs and tables that show uptime and efficiency. For example, you might see that one of your CNC machines has been turned on for eight hours but has really only run parts for three hours. You can dig deeper to find out why and then determine what corrections to make.”

“A lot of people walk through their factory once a day and think the edgebander’s not running well or the CNC is not running well based on a feeling not concrete information.” Varelli added. “Now we give you that information with Sophia based on a day, a week or longer. Reviewing this production information is a strong benefit.

“I would say that the old rules of how you go to market and how you organize your factory still apply,” Park said. “But having intelligent Industry 4.0 tools that give you sensory feedback based on what your machines are doing allow you to manage your production in a better way. The information collected and synthesized by MT Connect helps you achieve dynamic scheduling to improve your workflow and reduce your lead times.”

Preemptive Maintenance
Downtime is money and so especially are machinery repairs that can get more costly the longer the symptoms are not diagnosed and addressed. Some woodworking companies do a better job adhering to a regular preventive maintenance schedule than others.

The IoT platforms that are being integrated with computerized machines not only remind users when to perform routine maintenance but actually alert them when a malfunction is imminent.  In other words, these systems predict when a machine component is about to break down so that the user can proactively order a replacement part before the incident occurs.

The IoT platforms monitor sensors strategically installed in key components of a CNC machine, constantly on the look-out for anomalies while the machine is running.  Placement of sensors in CNC machining centers include electro spindles, tools changers and inverters. Among the signals of a potential problem that are monitored are power drops, excessive vibration and heat spikes.

“Sophia software is the centerpiece of our Industry 4.0 program,” said Varelli. He told of a customer in California who was alerted of a potential problem with an electro spindle. “Our technical team detected short errors in the electro spindle. Even though there were repetitive errors, neither the operator nor the customer could see the problem. But it was something that Sophia spotted going in a detrimental direction. Our team notified the customer who had a choice to make. He could either say, ‘I don’t believe you; I don’t care.’ or ‘Let’s be proactive and get the part now so that when it does break, I don’t have to wait for it to ship or for a technician to travel here.’ After they took delivery of the part, they had the machine up and running within an hour.

“What we’re doing is tracking the log file,” Varelli continued. “That includes monitoring everything from someone stepping on a safety mat to a problem with the tool changer or a software problem. Many of these are things that the operators are able to fix very quickly. If you wait until a machine breaks down to react, even if the replacement part is shipped overnight, you’re still talking about losing out on one or two shifts. The only way you can make up production lost time on a CNC machine is paying an operator overtime to run it on the weekend.”

Onsrud noted that Osync “will send out reminders to customers about doing routine maintenance but also monitor trends of the machine. If you think you have a problem, you can hit a button and send a snapshot to our technical team to diagnose the situation. We can see what happened before the event, during the event and after the event. It eliminates the time it takes to recreate the issue in the troubleshooting process.”

“Each major area of a machine has a time interval for maintenance based on normal usage, but a customer could be running his machine harder,” Cruickshank said. “Tapio collects data so you can see how long that machine is actually under power, how much time it is actually running and how much time it’s making chips be it an edgebander, a CNC router or a panel saw. Tapio also sees what types of loads the machines are under when an error occurs. Collecting this data is critical to start making more predictions and as a result you might change your maintenance schedule based on your usage.

“A good comparison is that you normally drive a car a certain distance before you change the oil,” Cruickshank added. “But if you use that car to pull a heavy trailer, then you want to change your oil more often.”

“One of the things that Homag’s Tapio does is send out notifications to your PC or mobile device – your smart phone, smart watch or tablet,” Cruickshank said. “That’s one step beyond having that data collection point; now there’s a communication chain as well. For example, you might get a message reminding you that vacuum pump maintenance is needed.”

“Most shop maintenance schedules are either set around break-down maintenance, meaning they just fix it when something is broken, or they operate off of a calendar and grease the machine whether it needs it or not, Park said. “Industry 4.0 yields a very different result. It would tell you that you’ve run this machine for 1,400 hours since your last maintenance interval and you’re overdue or you’ve only run this machine for 300 hours and you don’t need to do a maintenance. And you would know this by looking at your phone.

“Let’s say you get a message that it’s time to update a machine’s vacuum pump,” Park continued. “The app would open a ticket to schedule the maintenance and purchase parts in advance of the event. It would also tell you that this kind of pump requires these tools, this type of oil and that it will take about three hours to replace. MT Connect helps you plan your maintenance around your production schedule and get the parts you need ahead of time so you don’t have to pay for expedited shipping. Any size shop can take advantage of that.”

Smartech glasses are another Industry 4.0 tool offered by SCM to assist customers with troubleshooting machine issues. “Smartech glasses are an interactive device that allows our technicians to see what the operator sees when he wearing them. The operator can point to a fixed location of the machine. We can send electrical schematics back and forth. This virtual service call is an example of Industry 4.0 and utilization of the Internet and current technology to solve problems.”

Integrating Automation
Woodworking companies challenged to find skilled help should take a closer look at automating the infeed and outfeed of materials, said Varelli. “If owners can understand how to apply Industry 4.0 machines or principles into their manufacturing environment, my gut tells me they would put their money toward new machinery to make themselves more efficient and profitable with fewer employees.”

“Just because you have a CNC machining center doesn’t mean you have to have a person to load and unload it,” Varelli added. “You could put a smart robot on the back end to unload the machined parts onto a cart or pallet. Now we have eliminated the person from the whole CNC process so that they can be deployed elsewhere like the assembly department and bring more value to the product.”

Varelli said CNC automation, robots and automatic storage systems, like Biesse’s Winstore, are all important components of Industry 4.0. “But Sophia is the bigger part of it. Sophia is what ties it all together,” he said, adding, “Usually the last thing people look at is the software but it makes a big impact on making the machines and the shop run more efficiently.”

Another element of Industry 4.0 is Internet commerce. This includes the ability for customers to place and pay for orders and for manufacturers to order the necessary supplies to complete a job without human assistance.

“Some of our customers are using the Internet to allow their customers to design and order every cabinet they need right on their website,” said Don Bigelow, partner relations manager for Cabinet Vision. “Once you push an order through the website, the correct files and paperwork are all sent directly to the factory floor. By integrating with an MRP or ERP system, purchase orders for the needed materials are generated and CNC programs are outputted to every machine on the floor that has a computer display on the front end.”

Bigelow pointed to a five-man cabinet shop that is using Dropbox to manage jobs for its CNC nesting router. “They dump their programs for a CNC nesting machine into the router directory they have set up in Dropbox. The machine can access these programs without having to be physically networked on the system. They don’t have to hire or subcontract an IT guy to maintain a network.”

“Part of Industry 4.0 is having one computer ask another what’s the price of this item and when will it be delivered without human intervention,” Shaw said. “We have cabinet and closet manufacturing clients who literally have their customers enter orders online that drive the machine tools. The customer designs a kitchen, pulls the trigger, pays for it with some form of Internet currency and that design goes to the manufacturer who already has a configure-to-order data system that generates exactly what the job requires. It generates a work order and purchase orders for materials. It schedules machine time and assigns employees for the project. That’s Industry 4.0.”

Cruickshank said companies can enhance their workforce development programs by implementing 4.0. “With the right data you can truly understand how well your people are executing and help you determine if you are utilizing your equipment and people efficiently. It can help you target training for your operators by showing where improvement is needed.”

Intelligent Tooling
While greater attention on Industry 4.0 has been paid to software and automated machinery, smarter tooling is also part of the equation.

“Industry 4.0 from our standpoint is the heightened ability to manage the cutting tool process in a much more intuitive way and be less dependent on operators because we know the challenge woodworking companies face to find qualified workers,” said Mark Alster, sales manager of Leitz Tooling Systems of Grand Rapids, MI. “We want to make the process as autonomous and efficient as it can be and as safe as it can possibly be.”

Alster emphasized his point by providing an example of a worst-case scenario. “Anytime you put a tool on a machine that’s designed to run 18,000 to 24,000 rpm, any error can be catastrophic not only for the tool and the machine but for the operator. If you put a tool on a machine that is designed to be run left-handed and you run it right-handed, so much cutting pressure is created by the tool running in reverse that something is going to give. When that tool does give it is going to explode and under those kinds of rpms you can kill somebody.”

To better manage CNC tooling and eliminate human error, Leitz and other cutting tool manufacturers embed an RFID (radio-frequency identity) chip into the recess of a tool. “We can load all of the critical data in the tool including the dimensional data, the operational data and any safety data so that the machine can automatically pick up on all of that,” Alster said. “By programming the tool with this information, the machine understands all of the parameters of that tool so that there can be no mistake in the field when the operator actually puts that tool on the machine.”

Alster said Leitz has offered chip technology as an option for about 10 years. “Certainly 10 years ago it was a tough sell. Customers would ask why should I spend the extra money? Why do I need this? Now, it’s common for customers to ask what level of inter-connectivity and networking can we reach? How efficient can we be? How much data can we utilize in order to make sure our processes are as efficient as possible?”

Questions to Ponder
How do owners and managers of custom woodworking shops, who are already stretched thin by wearing multiple hats, find time to adequately assess Industry 4.0? Even more importantly, why should they do so?

“Number one, you’ve got to attend woodworking shows and see these technologies first hand,” Varelli said. “Even if you don’t or can’t do some of the things that larger companies do, doesn’t mean you can’t glean some ideas to improve your business.

“Sophia on a CNC router is probably as important if not more important for the owner of a small shop than the mega shop because the mega shop probably has multiple CNC machining centers and also has a preventive maintenance program in place. If a CNC goes down for one or two days at a mega shop, it’s bad but they’ll find a way to work around it. The small shop counts on that one machine so it creates a terrible situation if a machine malfunctions during a production run.”

“Fundamentally woodworking manufacturers are still doing the same thing,” Shaw said. “They’re buying material, adding value to the material and selling it. But the processes for doing all of that are changing rapidly. You don’t need to become a digital expert but you do need to understand there is digital technology out there that you can plug into your processes to eliminate human error and reduce the manual resources it takes to get things done.

“There’s so much to learn. I think it’s advisable to attend webinars and got to trade shows to ask questions,” Shaw added. “I don’t think there’s an absolute way to do it. I think every company will discover their own way to do it. I see the next generation come in and they are thinking this way anyway. They were almost born with smart phones and computers. They’ll be able to grab onto Industry 4.0 pretty easily.”

“There’s a wide range of Industry 4.0 options based on what a manufacturer is trying to achieve,” Onsrud said. “A common question we ask our customers is, ‘How automated do you want your factory to be in five or 10 years?’ Some people just want to have access to information about production instead of having a guy writing things down on a piece of paper or maybe nobody is writing it down and everyone is just guessing. Osync is automatically running in the background. It’s your choice if you want to look at it, but when you do, all of that data is there.”

“Smaller shops do not have a lot of resources, so they need to use their labor smarter and more efficiently,” Onsrud added. “That is the whole point of automating. You might have a guy who can expertly craft a piece by hand but you can do it a lot faster on a CNC machine. If you decide to make a second or third of the same or similar item it can be easily done.”

Park agreed. “The small custom woodworking company doesn’t have the infrastructure of their larger counterparts. When they use our app they are off and running.”

The Future Is Now
Opinions vary widely about how far along the North American woodworking industry is along the path to embrace Industry 4.0. But no one interviewed for this article thinks Industry 4.0 as a fad and everyone views it as a trend that should not be ignored.

“I think five years ago, on a 1-10 scale, with the metalworking industry being a 10, the wood industry was a 2 or a 3,” said Don Bigelow, partner relations manager for Cabinet Vision by Vero Software of Tuscaloosa, AL. “But today it’s moving so fast that woodworking is a 6 or 7 on the scale where metal is a 10.”

“The flow of information is so much faster than if you are not utilizing computers and the Internet,” Bigelow added. “Just like CNC has transformed the shop floor, the Internet has transformed the office.”

“We’re in the early phases of Industry 4.0,” opined Cruickshank. “We’ve talked from the office to the machines but the machines haven’t been talking back to the office a lot yet. Not many people are taking advantage of some of the Industry 4.0 functions such as machine monitoring and reporting so that they can actually determine their productivity. They’re not tracking their tool life using some of the Industry 4.0 tools that are available today. One of the biggest benefits of adopting Industry 4.0 is that instead of managing by emotion, you manage by data.”

“We are beyond scratching the surface,” Varelli said. “The artificial intelligence of Sophia is probably in the 20 percent range of what it’s going to be. Sophia’s AI is evaluating all of the historic files of all of the machines that have Sophia around the world. This evaluation process not only benefits the individual customers, it helps Biesse improve its products.

“As we grow our world-wide installation base, Sophia will learn and get smarter and smarter,” Varelli added. “We’ll see some big leaps by the first quarter of next year because we’ll be in the hundreds of machines installed with Sophia in just the U.S. and in the thousands around the world.”

“Industry 4.0 for everybody truly is a tangible, viable objective,” Park said. “Choosing Industry 4.0 in a way that you are monitoring your business through the cloud and digital technology that you’re gaining experience on a path and using that to move forward is always a good thing. It is part of continuous improvement. It’s part of the lean journey. That all fits tightly and neatly together.”

“Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things are both growing at warp speed,” Shaw said. “I honestly think that Industry 4.0 is about 50 percent done and now we’re going to see artificial intelligence take off. We’re at the tip of the iceberg.

“The world that we know is not the world that we will be living in the future,” Shaw continued. “The same holds true in manufacturing. With 5G coming, data will be moving faster. Wood product manufacturers more and more will take advantage of data as opposed to taking advantage of craftsmanship. Managing your data is the craftsmanship of the future in my opinion. Manufacturers that don’t harness the capabilities to not only understand the data but to use it to their advantage are going to find it extremely challenging to survive.”

Rich Christianson is the owner of Richson Media LLC, a Chicago-based communications firm focused on the North American woodworking industry. The former Editorial Director of Woodworking Network, Wood & Wood Products and CWB magazines, Rich has toured more than 250 wood product operations and attended dozens of industry trade shows and events during his more than 30-year career.