Dan Worman explains how Unified Communications (UC) can help manufacturing firms improve their productivity, efficiency and harness the potential of Industry 4.0

The fourth industrial revolution, also referred to as Industry 4.0 is changing the way that goods are produced. This type of smart manufacturing focuses heavily on interconnectivity, automation and real-time data. By connecting machines, systems and assets to the internet, manufacturers are able to create a more holistic and better-connected ecosystem for managing supply chains and manufacturing goods.

These networks of intelligent devices are commonly referred to as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and facilitate the monitoring, collection and exchange of critical production data, allowing manufacturers to gain valuable insights into the efficiency of operations.

Increasing team efficiency
With the UK manufacturing sector currently in the midst of a boom, the opportunities to harness Industry 4.0 technologies, drive efficiency and increase growth are huge. For manufacturers to thrive, it’s important that they remain agile and build infrastructures that address the need for connectedness and access to real-time data across partners, products and people. Unified Communication (UC) technology is well positioned to help manufacturers enhance both internal and external communications.

UC brings together a series of well-established technologies designed to improve communication and collaboration among individuals and groups. For example, audio and video calling and conferencing, instant text chats, file sharing and ‘presence’ (the ability to see at a glance whether someone’s available).

As operations grow more complex, UC supports manufacturers in multiple applications, and even geographies. This means communications don’t hinge on one specific site or country, as all locations can operate independently as well as part of a larger connected structure. Additionally, these tools also come with options for personalisation, so that organisations can implement policies and rules to suit their needs.

For instance, UC can improve operational efficiency through better collaboration – streamlining internal communications. With the ability to work in teams using collaboration applications and hardware such as intelligent whiteboards, organisations can promote creativity and a culture of innovation. As users can communicate easily from various locations and bounce ideas off one another in a simple, secure environment. This can help manufacturers remain agile, connecting teams from across the organisation such as engineers, research and development and new product introduction teams.

Joining up communications with connected technologies
The advent of Industry 4.0 and the introduction of IIoT offers up the opportunity for greater collaboration between man and machine.

With internet-enabled sensors and machinery, manufacturers can gain real-time updates and insights into production and machine performance – providing a range of opportunities to enhance collaboration and embrace UC technologies.

For example, if a machine encounters an issue and sends out an alert to the organisation’s UC messaging platform or interactive whiteboard, it would be possible to trigger a notification to all relevant ‘incident response’ team members. Those users would be able to communicate via phone, video conferencing or chat to access remote technical support, rectify the issue and delegate next steps.

The merging of IIoT and UC opens up a way to streamline operations, allowing organisations to collaborate seamlessly with one another in a timely manner to address issues and reduce delays.

Speeding up the supply chain
Manufacturing, more so than other industries, relies on the effective co-ordination of a wide range of suppliers, transportation companies and distribution centres. To avoid bottlenecks, raw materials need to be sourced, suppliers must be consulted and ultimately goods have to be transported to distributors on time. The entire process requires seamless communication and it’s crucial that any issues or problems are communicated amongst the supply chain quickly and efficiently to minimise disruption or delays.

Communication channels such as video calling or instant messaging can speed up supply chain communications and open up access to the right people, at the right time. Whether someone is sitting at an office desk, using a laptop at home, on a busy factory floor or in a warehouse, users can chat, call or join meetings, all without having to go to a meeting room. As well as provide quick and easy access to important files such as production schedules, technical drawings and inventories.

Video conferencing capabilities can also give manufacturers a competitive edge. In an industry where quality and output are paramount, video conferencing allows organisations to conduct inspections and validation tests over video. It’s not realistic to have engineering and production teams travelling between factories, so the ability to conference and view the outputs in real-time can ensure the quicker resolution of issues, improved prototypes and a faster move to full-scale production runs. Additionally, this gives manufacturers the option to reduce travel costs and decrease their carbon footprint. As teams can collaborate using the tools and technology at their disposal and be more efficient with time they would have spent travelling to and from various locations.

Ultimately, UC technologies allow manufacturers to assess their needs in real time and collaborate with suppliers anytime, anywhere to address them. For instance, if a manager based in a UK factory receives an automated notice indicating a shipment delay from a French supplier because of adverse weather conditions. Then within a few clicks from their smartphone, tablet or desktop that manager would be able to share the report with their French counterpart and begin collaborating on a contingency plan, using real-time data to move shipment rotas to cover the gap.

Bringing the competitive edge
Efficient communication has become crucial to the effective running of complex manufacturing environments. The inability to access information when needed can cause the supply chain to grind to a halt and impact bottom-line results. The efficiency in which manufacturers collaborate, often over vast distances, with suppliers, customers and other business partners increasingly defines their competitive edge.

The combination of internet enabled machinery and sensors coupled with UC technology facilitates seamless collaboration across multiple locations and warehouses. With scalable and easy to deploy solutions manufacturers of all sizes can benefit from better collaboration through convenient connectivity.

Dan Worman
Dan Worman is Executive Director at Cinos. Cinos delivers infrastructure, communications, unified communications, collaboration and audio-visual services to enterprises and the UK public sector. Specialists in the deployment and support of Cisco Telephony and Collaboration, Cinos works with customers to identify, design and deliver solutions which meet each unique requirement.