Construction, Manufacturing, and Technology

Feyen Zylstra aims to stay ahead of Industry 4.0 curve

Firm is implementing new technology in robotics, other sectors to increase safety and improve efficiency.

November 8, 2019
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Feyen Zylstra
The new industrial technology center, opened last month in Walker, is designed to help customers navigate the new industrial revolution. Courtesy Feyen Zylstra

Feyen Zylstra’s industrial tech team is taking the guesswork out of Industry 4.0 technology while many of its manufacturing clients still are getting their feet wet.

The Grand Rapids-based industrial technology and electrical firm is implementing new technology in robotics, internet of things and other sectors to increase safety, predict maintenance and improve overall efficiency for itself and its clients.

Mike Cotter, director of digital products for FZ, said Industry 4.0 refers to the fourth industrial revolution following the advent of steam power in the first industrial revolution, harnessing electricity, oil and gas in the second and most recently controls and automation of the third, which emerged in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Industry 4.0 is where we stand today,” Cotter said. “Feyen Zylstra added an industrial networking team and a digital products team, just being the fact that we were at the forefront of Industry 3.0, and we wanted to keep that pace with Industry 4.0.”

The rise of Industry 4.0 is attributed to a few factors, Cotter said. Since the 1970s, the amount of computing power of a microchip has grown exponentially. Half the world is connected to at least 3G wireless speeds, leading to the democratization of connectivity. And lastly, the commoditization of hardware and sensors has created a low barrier of entry for people who want to break into the development space.

“If you take this board here,” Cotter said, holding up an Arduino board. “That little board will host home automation … and it cost about $40. This has a Wi-Fi chip on it. It has some sensors on it, so it’s like a minicomputer right at your fingertips … you’re no longer looking at designing your own board. These kinds of model boards are a really good intro to get started.”

Industry 4.0 focuses on nine pillars of technology: autonomous robots, simulation, system integration, internet of things, cybersecurity, cloud computing, additive manufacturing, augmented reality and big data.

In its own operations, FZ tends to focus on IoT, cybersecurity, cloud computing and autonomous robots.

In the field of robotics, the emerging trend is “co-bots” or collaborative robots designed to work safely with one another and with humans. Traditional robots in a manufacturing facility often are blocked off from workers by a safety cage, Cotter said. If there’s any kind of handoff between a human worker and a robot, there have to be safety parameters in place to protect the worker, but co-bots are sensitive to human behavior and take up less space on the manufacturing floor and can perform more tasks.

Cotter referenced some of the work by Boston Dynamics as evidence of the recent innovations in robotics. One of Boston Dynamics’ robots, named Spot, is a commercially available four-legged robot designed for sensing, inspection and remote operation. Spot also can perform tasks like climbing stairs, traversing rough terrain and opening doors.

In Industrial IoT, users can track machine downtime, determine the source of a failure and increase efficiency.

“What you’re really trying to do is get a better perspective of what’s going on on your plant floor,” Cotter said. “So, there’s a lot of information that machines, systems and devices contain that can help us tell the story of your plant.”

The information gathered from systems also opens new revenue streams, Cotter said. Businesses that leverage Industrial IoT can offer information, such as visibility into production and shipping times, as a service to customers.

“Another thing is we work with a lot of machine builders, and those builders are putting a lot of machines in the field, and through IoT, they would be able to instrument that machine with some sensors that would allow them to predict when maintenance is going to be needed on that machine,” Cotter said.

But with the increased benefits and insights of interconnectivity comes the fear of cybersecurity. As more devices come online and are connected through IoT, those devices introduce a new vulnerability in the system, Cotter said. Something as innocuous as a thermostat with IoT capabilities can be hacked into, and the hacker will have access to the entire network.

To combat this, companies are moving to a “zero-trust” model, where all interconnected devices on a network are firewalled off and require separate credentials, so a user who gains access to the network doesn’t have full access to all devices in the network.

Cotter said companies that utilize Industry 4.0 in this way consequentially have to walk a thin line between security and productivity.

Cotter said many of these technologies still are in their infancy, but cloud computing is one technology that has been successful early on. With cloud computing, third-party vendors host a bank of servers and rent them out to clients. Microsoft’s Azure cloud, for example, has a data center outside of Chicago servicing West Michigan.

“If you think about starting a company 10 to 15 years ago, there was a big capital outlay to buy a server to be able to host some web traffic, and now the change there is not having to have that huge capital outlay, just paying for what you need as you go.”

Businesses have a lot of motivators to jump onboard Industry 4.0, Cotter said, citing a study from the McKinsey Global Institute. According to the numbers, factories alone could have up to $3.7 trillion in economic gains from operations optimization, predictive maintenance, inventory optimization and health and safety.

Additionally, with the previous generation of workers entering retirement, automation is going to have an important role in filling an estimated 2.4 million positions within the next decade, according to MGI.

FZ also has a one-to-three-month “digital transformation journey” process to help companies adopt Industry 4.0 technology without being overwhelmed.

“That’s what we find a lot of manufacturers are really struggling with,” said E.B. Sonheim, marketing manager for FZ. “They know they have to do something with technology. They’re just not sure where to start. … They’re finding they need to do something, or somebody’s putting pressure on them to do something … we see that a lot with automotive manufacturers.”

Serving Industry 4.0 was the primary purpose of FZ’s new industrial technology services center it opened last month in Walker. The 20,000-square-foot facility houses an expanded team to help customers navigate the new industrial revolution.

FZ’s controls and automation engineers have been around the longest and push automation through implementing robots and other devices on the plant floor; the digital products team developed FZ’s industrial IoT platform to capture data coming from those devices; and the industrial networking team provides assessments, security audits and implements new network infrastructure to assure a network is secure.

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