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By John Skarzynski, TechSolve, Inc.

I recently returned from a trip to Italy’s Chianti Classico region. While touring a vineyard there, I was struck by similarities between innovations in winemaking, and solutions that are being developed and deployed as manufacturing pivots toward the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Like manufacturers, Italy’s winemakers take product quality seriously.

First, let’s set the scene. Like many of Ohio’s small and niche manufacturers, the vineyard my wife and I visited is a family-owned operation, operating in an industry that’s governed by strict regulations and tight tolerances.

A winemaker must adhere to narrow production parameters for its product to qualify for labeling as one wine type or another. Chianti, for example, must by statute be produced from at least 80% Sangiovese grapes.

And, because the quality of those grapes can be affected by so many factors, a lot of attention must be paid to each variable.

Real-time data can mean the difference between a successful year and a flop.

Among those variables, vineyards have to consistently monitor their vines for ripeness: too little and the grapes might yield a wine with an undesirable tannin profile, too much and the wine’s ethanol content could be too weak.

Winemakers thus keep close tabs on how much sun and rain their grapes have gotten over the course of the growing season so that they can adjust the harvest schedule. They need to be able to predict whether there will be more wind after a rain to dry the vines off, or there will be more growth-slowing cloud cover than usual.

At the winery we visited, advanced weather stations closely tracked temperature and humidity, and their data was used to predict weather patterns.

What’s the lesson?

If you have the ability to collect, analyze and utilize manufacturing data in real-time (as off-the-shelf IIoT solutions now allow us to do), doing so will help your company continually improve processes, optimize production, and achieve consistent quality.

Sometimes, even in Industry 4.0, it still makes sense to employ older techniques.

Growers must ensure that their crops aren’t wiped out by mold, insects, or disease. And, because vines take years to mature, over time the productivity cost of losing one rises by orders of magnitude.

It’d be prohibitively expensive for growers to place high-tech disease state sensors throughout a vineyard, and a Herculean task to wrangle all the data besides. So, what do winemakers do?

They employ an ancient, elegant solution: they use roses as proverbial coal mine canaries.

Roses and grapes are close cousins; they’re susceptible to many of the same diseases. Delicate roses tend to succumb to disease more readily than grape vines. Long ago, growers noticed that and began planting roses at the head of their vineyard rows, where they serve as a sort of early warning system.

It’s a solution that works and is still economical. It, therefore, makes sense for growers to keep employing it.

Likewise, in Industry 4.0, it might be tempting to invest in getting as much data as possible from every operation, but you should first ask yourself whether it would truly improve operations. The reality is nuanced.

If a higher tech solution would complicate workflow, it wouldn’t realistically garner new insights that would significantly change outcomes, or it wasn’t relatively cost-effective, you might keep in place a legacy manufacturing process.

The best approach to building out a smarter factory, I feel, is to strike a balance between those IIoT solutions that should be implemented, and those traditional practices that wouldn’t be beneficial to change. Do what makes sense for your own manufacturing process.

Define Your Industry 4.0 Goals, Then Act

Most industries have now realized the critical importance of data gathering and analysis and consequently Industry 4.0 technologies like IIoT connectivity, augmented reality, 3D printing and cybersecurity tools are evolving and proliferating at an unprecedentedly rapid pace.

For a company just taking its first steps toward digitalization, it could all seem overwhelming. So, consider this: is your goal quality, or quantity?

The vineyard we visited isn’t worried about producing on a vast scale or cornering the wine market. It’s simply a family-owned business that makes the wine that best represents its personality. They’re still financially successful because they’re smart about staying on task: making the best wine they can from the resources they have.

Could they invest in more production equipment? Yes (they have tons of grapes left over every year). But they only use those grapes that are best suited to achieving their end product’s intended quality. So, like many small manufacturers, they stay niche and continually perfect their production process.

If your goal is to get more tool life out of your manufacturing process, investing in off-the-shelf IIoT-enabled data acquisition capabilities would be a cost-effective move. On the other hand, diving headlong into 3D printing might sound interesting, but you shouldn’t worry about it if it doesn’t fit your process.

Remember your goals. Develop an understanding of what data could lead to new insights, then figure out what you’d need to get it.

Then, roll out only those new technologies that make sense. Taking such an a la carte approach to Industry 4.0 makes it more feasible to invest in now and easier to tailor later.

Interested in talking through what is most feasible for your company to implement into your processes? Reach out to TechSolve to set up an assessment today.