MRO Magazine

Industry 4.0 and the future of maintenance

The future of maintenance departments and the way they perform their maintenance activities are changing quickly, and technology is taking them in a completely new direction.

February 18, 2022 | By Peter Phillips

Photo: arrow / Adobe Stock

Photo: arrow / Adobe Stock

Most of the people that read MRO magazine are on the front line of maintenance and have seen many great changes over the past number of years. COVID-19 has certainly changed the way we conduct our maintenance activities. There was a shortage of manpower with the virus spreading within the maintenance department and many facilities did not allow maintenance contractors on site due to COVID-19 protocols. This created a major labour hour shortage and caused facilities to fall further behind on planned maintenance activities that included preventive maintenance, plant outages, equipment repairs, maintenance training, and the list goes on as critical activities were cancelled or postponed.

In general, this affected equipment reliability in a big way, and it made companies think about the future, and prompted corporations to look closely at their maintenance strategies; to looks critically at maintenance regimes and to seek solutions that can predict equipment reliability without totally depending on the human intervention of trades people.

Companies are turning to alternate ways to predict and perform maintenance for several reasons:
• The shortage of skilled labour through Canada and the U.S. is at unprecedented levels. North America has millions of job openings at this very moment, notably in the skilled trades. This shortfall is expected to continue for the next decade, as colleges and trade schools have fallen behind with the demand.
• Technology is advancing quickly and is becoming more affordable for companies to implement.
• Demand for products has risen sharply, companies need more reliable equipment, and there is less time available for equipment repair and unscheduled breakdowns.

Because of these factors over the next five years, most maintenance departments in large industrial manufacturing facilities are going to see a big change in how maintenance activities are triggered and executed. Preventive maintenance will be done based on equipment health that will be determined by technology instead of set maintenance frequencies. Right now, the vast majority of maintenance departments has twice as many hours of PMs to be completed than the number of maintenance hours they have available to complete them. In conjunction with the shortage of skilled tradespeople and maintenance departments who are fighting a losing battle.


Maintenance management at the corporate level see these factors and are aggressively looking for solutions to maintain the equipment in such a way that planned and scheduled maintenance activities are achieved on schedule.

How will this be achieved?
Maintenance monitoring is at the top of the list. As an example, real-time temperature and vibration monitoring technology is now available from a variety of vendors and at very affordable pricing. Variations in temperature and vibration is detected and reported as soon as they happen. Periodic vibration measurements and analysis of the data are being replaced with real-time sensors. Problems are detected immediately, and repairs can be scheduled well ahead of time. Many companies have applied thermal vibration sensors on every motor and gearbox on the production line. Historical preventive maintenance on these units barely exist as maintenance monitoring technology has replaced these labour-intensive activities where equipment needed to be shut down, guards removed, a visual inspection completed and then re-assembled.

Industry 4.0 technologies that include artificial intelligence and machine learning will further enhance the monitoring and predicting of equipment health. The integration of industrial systems and combined data from previously standalone systems will not only monitor and analyze equipment health, but it will also offer solutions to maintenance staff of what needs to be done to solve the issue. Industry 4.0 digital industry technology will transform the way we are currently doing things and allow us to work alongside the machine in new and highly productive ways.

In case you are not fully familiar with Industry 4.0 technologies, here is some additional information of how it integrates with maintenance and equipment.

Industry 4.0 is built on nine technology pillars. These innovations bridge the physical and digital worlds and make smart and autonomous systems possible. Businesses and supply chains already use some of these advanced technologies, but the full potential of Industry 4.0 comes to life when they’re used together.

1. Big data and AI analytics: In Industry 4.0, Big data is collected from a wide range of sources, from factory equipment and IoT devices, CMMS, equipment sensors, equipment and work order historians, etc. Analytics powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning are applied to the data in real time – and insights are leveraged to improve decision-making and automation in every area of equipment health and reliability.

2. Horizontal and vertical integration: The backbone of Industry 4.0 is horizontal and vertical integration. With horizontal integration, processes are tightly integrated at the “field level” – on the production floor, across multiple production facilities, and across the entire supply chain. With vertical integration, all the layers of an organization are tied together – and data flows freely from the shop floor to the top floor and back down again. In other words, maintenance and production equipment and processes are tightly integrated – and previously stand-alone data systems and knowledge silos are a thing of the past.

3. Cloud computing: Cloud computing is the “great enabler” of Industry 4.0 and digital transformation. Today’s cloud technology goes way beyond speed, scalability, storage, and cost efficiencies. It provides the foundation for most advanced technologies – from AI and machine learning to the IoT, and gives businesses the means to innovate. The data that fuels Industry 4.0 technologies resides in the cloud, and the cyber-physical systems at the core of Industry 4.0 use the cloud to communicate and coordinate vital equipment data.

4. Augmented reality (AR): Augmented reality, which overlays digital content on a real environment, is a core concept of Industry 4.0. With an AR system, employees use smart glasses or mobile devices to visualize real-time IoT data, digitized parts, repair or assembly instructions, training content, and more when looking at a physical thing – like a piece of equipment or a product. AR is still emerging, but has major implications for maintenance, service, and quality assurance as well as technician training and safety.

5. Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT): The Internet of Things (IoT) – more specifically, the Industrial Internet of Things – is so central to Industry 4.0 that the two terms are often used interchangeably. Most physical things in Industry 4.0 – devices, robots, machinery, equipment, products – use sensors and RFID tags to provide real-time data about their condition, performance, or location. This technology lets companies run smoother, prevent equipment downtime, track spare part inventory, and much more.

6. Additive manufacturing/3D printing: Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is another key technology driving Industry 4.0. 3D printing was initially used as a rapid prototyping tool, but it now offers a broader range of applications, from mass customization to distributed manufacturing. With 3D printing, for example, parts and products can be stored as design files in virtual inventories and printed on demand at the point of need – reducing both transportation distances and costs.

7. Autonomous robots: With Industry 4.0, a new generation of autonomous robots is emerging. Programmed to perform tasks with minimal human intervention, autonomous robots vary greatly in size and function, from inventory scanning drones to autonomous mobile robots for pick and place operations. Equipped with cutting-edge software, AI, sensors, and machine vision, these robots are capable of performing difficult and delicate tasks – and can recognize, analyze, and act on information they receive from their surroundings. Crafts people will need to have specific knowledge and skills to maintain these complex machines.

8. Simulation/digital twins: A digital twin is a virtual simulation of a real-world machine, product, process, or system based on IoT sensor data. This core component of Industry 4.0 allows businesses to better understand, analyze, and improve the performance and maintenance of industrial systems and products. An asset operator, for example, can use a digital twin to identify a specific malfunctioning part, predict potential issues, and improve uptime.

9. Cybersecurity: With the increased connectivity and use of Big Data in Industry 4.0, effective cybersecurity is paramount. By implementing a Zero Trust architecture and technologies like machine learning and blockchain, companies can automate threat detection, prevention, and response – and minimize the risk of data breaches and production delays across
their networks.

It can be easily concluded that the future of maintenance will be very high tech. Of course, there will still be a need for trades people to turn wrenches, change parts and repair equipment. However, knowing when that work needs to be done will often be prescribed by technology.

In the future, we will see fewer maintenance tradespeople in our departments, as historic ways of doing maintenance will be replaced with technology that provides the real-time condition of the equipment. Tradespeople will be highly trained to interpret and react to technology-based equipment monitoring. In reality, that will significantly change the way we do maintenance and it upon us, and we must learn and adapt starting now. MRO
Peter Phillips is the owner of Trailwalk Holdings Ltd., a Nova Scotia-based maintenance consulting and training company. Peter has over 40 years of industrial maintenance experience. He travels throughout North America working with maintenance departments and speaking at conferences. Reach him at 902-798-3601 or


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