With the global automation industry’s total value increasing from $170.2 billion in 2013 to $182.7 billion in 2014 and to a projected $209.4 billion in 2016, manufacturers understand the stakes are high when it comes to manufacturing data. But, according to a white paper by IHS’s Mark Watson, the manufacturing industry still faces a major challenge: developing software and analytical systems capable of converting the mountains of data produced by smart factories into useful information and insights.

According to Watson, such systems could usher in an era of efficient, flexible and customizable mass production that has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0. Early forays into Industry 4.0 have focused on improving the flexibility and individualization of manufacturing processes. Watson says IHS expects food and beverage manufacturers to be early adopters of them.

Manufacturers will require the ability to manage and analyze huge quantities of data to achieve efficiency and flexibility improvements, meaning software development will present the biggest challenges to implementing individualized manufacturing. One idea Watson proposes is distributed intelligence, or “making pieces of factory equipment intelligent and autonomous enough to determine on their own which pieces of information are valuable—and reporting that data to decision-makers within the organization.”

The trend toward flexibility is already underway, and forward-thinking manufacturers will benefit from adding greater communications and data-gathering technology in automation processes. Otherwise, they could end up on the outside of the revolution looking in.