The concept of Industry 4.0 is the new black these days. And Ray Service, a Czech innovative high-tech company providing solutions in cable systems for aerospace industry and for special land systems since the 1990s, has been trying to fill it with real content. In the last couple of years, its factory in Uherské Hradiště has turned both externally and technologically into a so-called smart factory. Petr Gabriel, its founder, owner and CEO, talks about how Industry 4.0 works in practice.
A simple question to start with: What is Industry 4.0 about?
In a way, Industry 4.0 is a political concept, and it is often misunderstood. We did not make any theoretical decision to 'rebuild the factory into Industry 4.0'. We have taken real steps reflecting the practice when we hit the limits of the existing system of our main production program for producing cable harnesses. Then we realized smart technologies were the key to growth and productivity. And so, we began implementing them.
What did you start with?
With warehouse management. In 2011, we digitized our warehouse: we marked all items with barcodes, equipped our storekeepers with barcode readers, and we connected everything with a software solution that allows us to track the component's circulation throughout the factory. Then we began purchasing Kardex automated storage system modules. Among other things, it allows items to be stored according to the height of the item's packaging, saving space, but this is not the key feature. Most importantly, Kardex knows what is stored where, and the system 'hands' the worker the component he or she asks for.
What followed the creation of the “paperless warehouse”?
The paperless production. All workers were equipped with an iPad in which they viewed drawings, reported individual manufacturing steps, ordered parts from stock, or reported defects. They also have a daily overview of how much they earn, because part of the work is standardized. And the company's management has a perfect knowledge of the workflow throughout the company.
How did the team react to the introduction of new technologies?
There are mainly female employees in our production programs, because manufacturing cables is about precise handwork. I am mentioning this because of the cliché that men are more friends with technology, but this has not been confirmed at all. The system was created in close cooperation with employees. Before we introduced it globally, a selected group tested new solutions and suggested some improvements.
Some may be surprised that you preferred Apple to Android technology...
For us, not only the price, but also reliability, safety and user-friendliness were the key factors to make a decision. Eventually, we agreed Apple to be a more suitable platform for us. And by the way, we plan to exchange the iPads every seven years, although we have no doubt that they will last a few years longer.
According to the optimistic scenario, Industry 4.0 will relieve people of monotonous and physically strenuous work. According to pessimists, people will lose their jobs. What is your experience in Ray Service?
In our company, technology has not yet deprived anyone of work. On the contrary, new technologies saved us thousands of hours of unproductive activity, thereby increasing our overall competitiveness. And High-Tec solutions have increased our chances to maintain jobs. As you know, there are not enough job candidates in the job market, and thanks to technology, we have increased our productivity by tens of percent over five years. In addition, by digitizing key company processes, making them an electronic model, we can transfer production to another location very effectively.
Have you already done that?
Yes. We have rented part of the production in VOP CZ, a state-owned company in Nový Jičín. And the local team works according to identical standards, using the same procedures with the same technology as the one in Staré Město u Uherského Hradiště. Interestingly, we have yet another production plant in Slovakia. We have a perfect real-time and online overview of working in both locations. These places are tens of kilometres away, but the distance does not limit us. We can locate production anywhere in Europe or around the world.
The German philosopher Klaus Schwalb wrote: "In its most pessimistic, dehumanized form, the 4th Industrial Revolution may robotize humanity, and thus deprive us of heart and soul". As a businessman who knows practice: What do you think about this quote?
We want to automate the transmission of information so that people do not need to deal with routine administration. Instead, we want them to be creative and look for solutions to problems. In our case, technology does not limit interpersonal communication, but rather deepens it - it strengthens teamwork.
What do you invest in now?
The last innovations we invested in are the interactive wire assembly boards we acquired as the first ones in the Czech Republic. In fact, they are special monitors with a diagonal measurement of the size of a large workbench, on which the cable scheme is projected, and special suction cups are placed in the places of refraction. This creates a work surface on which the cable harness is assembled. Until then, we had a piece of plywood in which the shape of the cabling was marked by nails. By introducing new technology, a storage of the primitive tools will be eliminated. And each wiring harness we have ever produced will be stored in an electronic archive and can be re-manufactured at any time.
What direction will Ray Service's 4th Industrial Revolution take now?
We have digitized both the warehouse and production, it's time to digitize our business. In the future, every demand and subsequent order will be automatically reflected in the production plan. We will immediately know our production capacity and the time within which we can fulfil the order.
Do you need to recruit job candidates to further develop your company, or will you do just with investing in new technologies?
In our company, both development and production depend on our employees, their intelligence and skills. Like other industrial companies, we have a problem finding the right employees. (The Czech unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the EU these months, fluctuating around 2 pct).
What are your job requirements and job qualifications?
We want employees who want to learn and know how to learn. Pace of innovation speeds up and schools always stay behind a few years. I don't know what I'm going to need precisely from my employees in a few years.
How should the education system better work to generate this type of people?
Schools should aim at real education in context. Students should not study to get a certificate but to learn and master their specialization.
What can the Czech Ministry of Defence do to help?
Since we also supply cabling for the defense industry, I would like the Ministry of Defense to successfully complete major acquisition projects: the purchase of infantry fighting vehicles or the acquisition of new helicopters. Even if the supplier is from abroad, it will use Czech subcontractors like us. We get a priceless reference as a subcontractor for the national army and at the same time, we may enter the global supply chain of large companies like Bell Helicopters.