Ask the Expert: Industry 4.0 and spitting in the coolant tank

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Avoid the bleeding edge when it comes to new technology, advises technical editor Kip Hanson, but by all means, embrace the cutting edge. PHOTO courtesy Okuma.

by Kip Hanson 

I’ve written several dozen articles on Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) over the past few years. I gave each a few pages of coverage in my Dummies books. I’ve spoken with countless experts from leading software suppliers, machine tool builders, and those who’ve developed so-called “smart” tools and other forms of advanced manufacturing technology. 

I’m not bragging. Nor am I applying for a job. What I am doing is scratching my head. Just what the heck does “Industry 4.0” actually mean to the average shop? Does any of it make a difference to the machinists, sheet metal fabricators, welders, and all the rest who make stuff for a living? I’m guessing not. 

Don’t get me wrong; I’m no Luddite. I adore technology. At last count, there were 78 devices on my home network. I waste precious time getting Alexa, Siri, and Google to engage in conversation. I’m no gamer, but after writing an article on virtual reality last month, I dropped $400 on a VR headset to see if it’s as cool as it sounds. It wasn’t, but at least my purchase was tax-deductible. And yes, a 3D printer is next on my wish list. 

Technology is exceedingly cool, yet I continue to struggle with Industry 4.0, digitalization, and the IIoT—it seems to me that much of the industry hasn’t caught up with the previous industrial revolution, let alone the next one. 

Granted, I learned how to do manual layouts with Dykem Blue, and found out
the hard way to never hang a crescent wrench on the bar feed in an attempt to stop the rattle. So yes, I’ve been out of the shop for a while, but based on numerous discussions with sales and application people, it sounds like things haven’t changed all that much. Many machinists are still hand-sharpening cutting tools. Multi-hour setups remain the norm. People still spit sunflower seeds in the coolant tank, use drill chucks to hold end mills, and leave crap all over their workbench. Until the industry stops doing dumb things, what’s the point of smart manufacturing?

We’re clearly in the middle of an industrial revolution. Most shops are wired these days (or better yet, wireless). CAM systems and toolpath simulation software are routine. Remote machine monitoring hasn’t yet replaced the decades-old Andon light, but things are moving in that direction. Robots and cobots are becoming more common than pickup trucks in the shop parking lot. 

More is surely coming, but we remain decades away from the machine learning, AI-driven, Industry 4.0-powered AR/VR nirvana that I and others like me write about. Until that glorious day comes, let’s focus on continuous improvement. Avoid the bleeding edge, but by all means, embrace the cutting. If you’re not using at least some of that just listed, it’s time to get on board. Take small steps. Learn all you can about your existing technologies, maximize them, and prepare for all the cool stuff coming down the pipe. And no more spitting in the coolant tank. It’s just plain gross. SMT

Technical Editor Kip Hanson has more than 40 years experience in the manufacturing industry. He is the author of Machining for Dummies and Fabricating for Dummies, and has written over 1500 articles (and counting) on a diverse range of topics, among them machining, sheet metal fabrication, 3D printing, automation, software systems, Industry 4.0, and the Industrial Internet of Things.

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