How Industry 4.0 is making supply chains more agile and flexible

16 June 2020 4 min. read

The Covid-19 epidemic is having an unprecedented impact on supply chains in the industrial sector. Cédric Midoux, a Manager at Eurogroup Consulting, reflects on how Industry 4.0 combined with emerging technologies is helping players with their rapid response.

The pandemic-induced downturn is destabilising global economic and industrial balances. Some industries are at a standstill, such as automotive. Some industries have to maintain constant production despite absenteeism, distancing measures or supply problems, such as the food or pharmaceutical industries. Finally, other industries have seen demand for their products explode, for instance those that provide for protective masks and hydroalcoholic gel. 

In sectors impacted, the crisis has also driven rapid innovation. Take the example of Lamborghini. The Italian manufacturer now produces 1,000 protective masks per day. While these figures may seem modest given the magnitude of the global shortage, keep in mind that Lamborghini only produces 8,000 vehicles per year. In comparison, France’s Renault produces almost four million. 

Other similar examples of agile-based innovation have emerged in recent weeks. LVMH, for example, currently makes protective masks and produces thousands of bottles of hydroalcoholic gel from its perfume lines. So what has made such rapid transitions in manufacturing focus possible? Clearly, technology has played a large role in making this possible. 

How Industry 4.0 is making supply chains more agile and flexible

Lamborghini's Urus (the company’s first SUV) production line inaugurated in 2018 touts many new technologies. These are grouped together in the Industry 4.0 concept: collaborative robots, 3D printers, autonomous carts, etc. These investments have enabled the car brand to reconcile productivity and advanced the customisation of its vehicles thanks to a flexible and responsive production system. 

Efficient production

Among the technologies part of Industry 4.0, additive manufacturing – also known as 3D printing – is certainly the most visible. It is capable of producing any plastic or metallic element from digital plans. For example, the German aerospace agency has switched its additive manufacturing equipment to the production of masks and valves for artificial respirators.

The rates are still very modest: 15 valves per day for the German aerospace agency. However, the initiative demonstrates the capabilities of this new technology to immediately adapt to a new need. 

When higher rates of production are required, digital twins, programmable robots, or even autonomous vehicles can be powerful allies. They allow the quick reconfiguration of a production line. Free of fixed conveyors, and with robots capable of performing several functions that are fully testable digitally, the 4.0 production lines are able to adapt to all new configurations more quickly, with minimal human intervention on site. 

Finally, advanced automation, remote supervision and maintenance minimise the exposure of the staff on site. This is particularly the case for industries that need to ensure continuity of production such as the food or pharmaceutical industry.

A more local and agile supply chain

The way the supply chain is designed and orchestrated is obviously a key factor of supply chain agility. For large manufacturers operating internationally, the key question during Covid-19 is: How can production continuity be ensured when most components come from other continents and the logistics routes are cut off? The issues surfacing from Covid-19 is demonstrating the need for flexibility, responsiveness – and even sovereignty – in supply chains. 

Geographically close and responsive suppliers: this is one of the factors currently enabling Air Liquide to dramatically increase the production rate of its artificial respirators. Normally, the company produces 200 units per year. The requirement increased to 10,000 units to be produced in 50 days. By all regards, a huge challenge.

The suppliers of many components of these machines, located in France or Morocco, were able to mobilise and respond very quickly. But for other elements, the strategy is more complex. Sometimes a producer must go back to tier two, three or even four suppliers, some of whom are located in China, to access certain parts. And when there is no solution, 3D printing turned out to be the solution.