Building Your Digital Highway – A holistic approach to I4.0


Cloud services want you to believe that Industry 4.o is big-data. It’s not. If you think this claim isn’t true, just search online for I4.0. You will find more than 80 million references to back it up, each one claiming to provide some insight.

Is I4.0 not big-data? Is i4.0 not about everything plugging in? Data is part of the future, but only part. The heart of I4.0 is having a vision that connects customers, parts, manufacturing, data, security, process, equipment, and people. I4.0 is the digital highway. Just like any highway, it takes planning, money, time, and a vision to build a path from one location to another.  

So why do we need another perspective? Another insight? Another story on I4.0? I believe the reason is that very few of these millions of articles look at the issue from your viewpoint. They are, for the most part, self-serving documents claiming that if you come on board with their new software, cloud-service, security hardware, or consultants you will meet the future and have a better life, better returns, improved shareholder value, blah, blah, blah.

Industry 3.0 taught us some hard lessons. It took decades. There was a famous saying in the 80s: automate or die. Some companies never made the transition. They simply died. Others (late adopters) are just now saying, “Okay, I guess I’d better consider this robotic thing. It sounds like robots are not going away.”

What does I4.0 threaten? What does the next 20 years hold? I believe the key statement is “digitize or die.” Why do we say this? How hard is it to digitize? This whitepaper examines how we got to today and offers you a holistic approach to building your company’s I4.0 plan. 


The foundation of I4.0 was laid some two hundred years ago. The first industrial revolution was about power conversion, specifically from steam to mechanical work. This shift allowed for process improvements. Grinding, forging, drilling, and other processes were converted from manual hammering to a machine that could do the work. 

The second industrial revolution was the use of assembly lines and standardized work methods of all forms in the early 1900s. This change included conveyors, monorails, and hand passed assembly lines. Operators were no longer expected to build something from start to finish. They merely had to complete their single task, such as installing a fender. 

The 1970s saw the start of the third industrial revolution. Computer Numeric Controlled (CNC) machines found their way onto the shop floor. Computers and robotics revolutionized factories. These machines made it easy to replicate the same part over and over. We could now start to imagine automated welding lines with hundreds of robots that could replicate complex processes. 

Where does that leave us? With so many machines and the ability to collect terabytes of data, we want desperately to plug them all into each other and have a digital ecosystem. We can start to imagine what that would look like. We can almost feel it. The digital train is leaving the station.


Like anything that is sustainable, the digital vision must fit into a plan. It’s not enough to build an island of digital integration. It’s not enough to install a new server or a robotic cell. If these initiatives are part of a larger plan, then there is progress. If these are not part of a plan, then you have another island, and you require another bridge. 

A I4.0 vision is about taking the time to learn what is possible. To understand how these new digital ideas can fit into your business model and how they can transform your business, yielding new benefits and creating new opportunities. This shift brings to mind the way that planning for quality in the 80s provided new benefits, reduced costs, and was “free.” However, making that change was an investment, and it did require a vision. 

I remember the days when, as a young engineer, I questioned the need for all of this quality charting. Wouldn’t it slow our progress? It wasn’t long before I realized that the experts were right. Quality systems led to improved processes, new manufacturing methods, less rework, and yes . . . quality was free. By rethinking how we imagined quality, we improved everything. In the same way, we can start to think about I4.0 and the digitization that is taking place. 

Just as a quality vision changed manufacturing in the eighties, a digital vision is needed now. It takes courage and is worth fighting for. It will transform your company.


We plan all the time. We plan our day, our quarter, our year. What does it mean to plan in this digital context? It means that your digital plan is aligned with your business plan. From the beginning to the end of the customer cycle, you want a seamless experience. This benefit is not just for the customer. A vision should include your front office, design, manufacturing, and logistics. 

At the beginning of the digital journey is the plan. Your digital plan should overlay your business plan. At a minimum it should link: investments, human resource assessment, strength/weaknesses/opportunities/threats (SWOT) analysis, financials, IT, as well as an assessment of your competition, mission statement, strategic advantage,  manufacturing, and gaps. You can imagine that this process will take several off-site sessions with your senior management to develop. 

Most companies focus on a project. While this approach produces a result, it does not achieve an integrated result. Instead, it tends to create islands that are not connected to the over-arching plan. Once these islands are in place, we see the bridges companies try and create. Some are amazing and creative. Some are bound for failure and collapse. Most were not planned.

As an executive, it’s your job to align management. This means that everyone sees the big picture and is rowing in the same direction. If some of your managers are not on board, then they will fight on every corner. Like Jim Collins reminds us in Good to Great, it’s important to have the right people on the bus. You must have great people that are fully aligned to the big picture vision that includes moving the digital integration forward.

The Seven Elements of the I4.0 Roadmap

Your business consists of many dimensions and is more like a matrix than a short list. However, for the sake of brevity, let’s look at the seven elements of an Industry 4.0 roadmap. They are: products, process and environment, data and security, business map and planning, people and training, facility and automation, and—at the core—is the customer. When woven together, these elements make up your roadmap. 

  1. Products are foundational to all manufacturing companies. It’s not enough to have good products. They must be validated with your customers, costed appropriately, developed for sustainability, and invested in with care. From the manufacturing perspective, products need to be designed from the outside with the manufacturing process in mind. This approach includes items such as tolerances, materials, assembly methods, manufacturing equipment, life, and packaging.
  • Process and Environment must be synchronized with the digital vision. If you want the ability to react to your customers’ demand, you will likely require a more flexible solution with robots or other technologies. Some companies have already built completely new facilities to accommodate the demands of their customers. Without a robust process, it is almost impossible to create a digital manufacturing map. As part of your process, the environmental concerns should be aligned with your company’s good corporate stewardship. 
  • Data and Security is the connection, collection, storage, and security of data from “shop floor to top floor.”. It is not enough to just collect data. Today, it’s easy to collect terabytes of data. Decisions must be made as to what data to keep and what to discard. Then come decisions regarding how to analyze it, where to store it, how to protect it, and who has access, along with a host of other decisions. You may require new software to gather valuable production information from your shop floor equipment.    
  • Business Map and Planning is the element that underlies your business purpose. It encompasses your values, mission statement, goals, aspirations, and your measurement of success. As the name implies, a map must show a destination and a direction.
  • People and Training cannot be understated. Having a plan for your current and future team will mean the difference between success and failure. This digital journey does not happen without a strong team of people dedicated to the future. There must be a change management plan in place to ensure the team members feel they are part of the digital transformation.
  • Facility and Automation is what most feel is at the heart of manufacturing. The equipment, robots or lack thereof, as well as the material handling (in-station), and material movement (between stations and storage) take significant capital and must be planned as opposed to added to. It is amazing to see how many companies will struggle with old and outdated equipment. It’s a bit like trying to run your company without a computer.
  • Customersare at the core of what we do. Understanding them and the products they demand is our future. We must take the time to speak with them about us and our products. What should our products look like? What features should they have? What flexibility do we need to respond to our customers’ demand? What does the next generation look like? 


If you set out on a digital journey, your path will be littered with roadblocks. There will be people that say it’s not worth it, that it’s too expensive or too hard. Some will point to financial markers and say that digitization] cannot fit into the plan. 

Imagine the people from the first industrial revolution that said, “We don’t have time to look at mechanical work.” Consider those who opposed standardized work in the second revolution or those that refused to accept computers in the third—industrial—revolution. Today, we can hardly imagine doing without such improvements.  

Some will ask the question, “What will become of us if we go down this digital road”? The real question is, “What will become of us if we don’t?”

Getting Started

The longest journey starts with the first step. If you are a fortune 100 company you likely have a team looking at future trends, future technologies, future integrations, digitization and how your people, management and executives fit into the big picture. However, if you’re not one of those fortune 100 companies that is already building a factory of the future, you may require a little help. 

GAras has the experience to support senior management as you walk down the digital road. By asking the right questions, your team will be armed with the knowledge it requires to make the right decisions and save millions of dollars by avoiding the wrong path.