In case you have not been living under a rock for the past several years, you have probably heard the term “fourth industrial revolution”, or simply “Industry 4.0”. The term is closely tied to technological breakthroughs and constant improvements of the way we produce products, its digitization, and manufacturing. You may be even heard it in a negative way since many consider it just an empty buzzword and another huge marketing stunt. Joel Martin, laser tracker product manager for Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence states the following: “Are they buzzwords? Yes. Are they just buzzwords? Absolutely not.” So what exactly is going on over here? The manufacturing sector is currently changing rapidly, but the final picture is still too far away to say what this change will bring. In order to get to the bottom of this matter and understand if this so-called “revolution” is already at our doorsteps, we will start from the very beginning – a history lesson.
Evolution of Industrial Revolution .. One,Two,Three
The first industrial revolution happened in the 19th century and represented a shift from human hands to machines, powered by either steam engine or water wheels. Although mostly impacting the textile industry at the time, it soon became a regular aspect of everyday life.
The second one spanned the period of the 1850s to World War I, and unlike the first revolution, it was not about introducing new technologies, but improving something that was already there: an introduction of steel, first releases of mass production, electricity replaced water streams and many more.
The third revolution happened in the late 1950s, and like the first one, also brought new exciting technology – digital technology, that will now completely outshine all the previous electronic and mechanical ones. For the first time, people got to understand the power of automation and laid their hands on computers. Robots and Computer Numerical Controls established our modern views on basic manufacturing.
So is the third revolution the one we are in right now?
Evolution of Industrial Revolution Three or Four
Industry 4.0 was first introduced by a German government memo back in 2013. This highly technological document was describing a plan of a fully computerized manufacturing industry, that will be functioning completely without human’s hand. So in a way, people expected it to be more like the second revolution, meaning not inventing, but reinventing an already existing technology and making it evolve. With all that, let us look at the modern picture.
Eldon Gorman, expert of the manufacturing data analysis solutions of Elinext, is confident about the dominating future of the Factory 4.0 approach and believes that: “We can now easily imaging a factory where all the stages of manufacturing are managed by machines under the supervision of human staff. The system is faultless, reliable and precise as can be. Machine–assisted manufacturing allows unprecedented level of transparency, predictability and reporting thus increasing competition in the industry and decreasing the costs of the final product.”
Industry 3.0 had a computer. Industry 4.0 have the same computer, but which can now be connected to the unlimited number of other computers, communicate, process and make decisions – everything, without the need for a human. Modern cyber-physical systems, as well as the Internet of systems and Internet of Things all, make Industry 4.0 a reality.
Founder and CTO at Star Rapid, Gordon Styles summarizes the matter perfectly: “Every now and again, there’s some fundamental shift that happens, then becomes a trend and eventually becomes mainstream. That’s how we got to mechanization and mass production, and now computers and automation.
We’re seeing a transition from having machines with computers in isolation to machines with on board computers that are communicating or being controlled from other computers. And it’s not something that happens overnight—obviously, it’s something that has gradually come about as devices have become more connected.”
I think we get this right now. Industry 4.0 is more of an evolution than revolution – natural manufacturing development, the impact of which will be spread step by step across the whole sector.
The Factory of the Future
This how people often call a smart factory, which is a keystone of a fourth industrial revolution. A smart factory is highly digitized and relies solely on smart manufacturing. Smart factory works by employing AI technology, big data, analytics, robots, Internet of Things and can be autonomously self-controlled.
Defining characteristics of a Smart factory would be autonomy, visibility, and connectivity. Combination of all of the modern technologies lets smart factory systems to learn and adapt in real time, making them more flexible and effective.
Joel Martin says that: “If a factory is producing a quality product, the processes are tuned, the supplier channel is correctly monitored and everything is running like a well-oiled machine. I think that factory today and the factory of the future are, quite frankly, going to look very similar. The reality is that it’s very seldom for any factory to work like a well-oiled machine.
If you walk into a factory today, what do you see? A group of engineers huddled around a problem, brainstorming. ‘What is this? How did it happen? What the hell do we do to fix it?’ In the factory of the future, you’re going to see a computational database spitting out not just, ‘Hey, you have a quality problem,’ but ‘Hey, here’s the solution to your problem,’ and, hopefully, in the larger scope of things you don’t even see it.”
The existence of a smart factory makes the support of smart machines getting more effective since they will be getting access to more data. And it is these smart machines, who will create a digitally connected network, where every machine creates and shares information with each other, that will unveil the real power of the fourth industrial revolution. Numerous challenges are, however, also present with some of them being overall costs and business leader buy-ins’.
What sparked the fire
Remember the German memo? After that, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of its concept at the World Economic Forum in Davos, that was happening in the year 2015. She called Industry 4.0 the way that we “deal quickly with the fusion of the online world and the world of industrial production.” Since that day, the German government invested around $216 million to spark the research across academia, business, and government levels. And Germany is not the only country that pursues these advancements.
US field has the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition (SMLC), which is a non-profit organization that combines suppliers, manufacturers, government agencies, laboratories and universities all together working towards one goal, and that is Industry 4.0.
They are currently aiming to establish a smart and open manufacturing platform for industrial-networked information applications. The dream here is to eventually enable manufacturing businesses of all sizes to gain affordable and effective access to both analytical and modeling technologies, that can be fully customization to address all the company’s needs.
Industry 4.0 today
While many organizations are still a bit skeptical on how exactly fourth revolution can influence their business, or just do not know where to start and how to build up a strong team of professionals, others are already preparing for a future, where smart machines, that we have talked before, can improve theirs. Let us look at some of the possible applications.
Additive manufacturing (3D printing): This technology is a great example of something that has made a huge step forward from previous years, moving from prototyping to actual production. Recent metal additive manufacturing advances have opened up new big possibilities for production.
President of North America Ultimaker John Kawola said that: “If you go back to the earlier days of 3D printing, you had a handful of companies with a business model that was essential, ‘Here’s the machine, here’s the software and here are the materials,’ and the materials were generally closed, i.e., proprietary.
Obviously, that’s a beautiful business model for those companies, but now, with the next wave of 3D printing companies, which includes Ultimaker and HP, our strategy is to be more open with the materials you can use. That’s opened the floodgates for the major plastics companies of the world to get into this market. As a result, the pace of development of new materials and the pace of innovation has greatly increased.”
Internet of Things and the cloud: Internet of Things is a key component of the Industry 4.0 and is characterized by connected devices. Through the use of a cloud environment, where all the data is stored, all of the operations can be optimized by leveraging the insights of others using the same equipment. It can also give smaller enterprises access to the technology, they would have never been able to get on their own.
Jason Urso gave his perspective, saying that they “provide process licenses for large pieces of equipment at refineries and petrochemical plants that, in essence, run their processes for converting petroleum into other chemicals. The challenge is always that the technology is optimized when it is delivered but needs to be operated in a particular way to maintain that level of optimization over a period of time. It can be challenging for customers who don’t all have the skills to ensure that those pieces of equipment are constantly optimized.
By connecting that equipment up to Honeywell’s cloud environment, we’re able to monitor its performance against its nameplate capacity and identify instances where it’s starting to degrade. More than that, we can very clearly understand the reason why it’s happening and provide an advisory service to the customer to make a change.”
Robots: Nowadays robotics are not anything special anymore and can be obtained from organizations of any size and budget. Autonomous robots support manufacturers in many different ways: from picking products at the warehouse to getting them ready to ship. Amazon uses them to move goods around their warehouses. Robots also help them reduce costs and make up for better use of floor space.
Autonomous equipment and vehicles: There are already shipping yards, that are leveraging autonomous trucks and cranes to streamline operations as they are receiving shipping containers.
Industry 4.0 in numbers
Nowadays any product that is somehow connected to the Internet of Things or promises to increase automation is usually connected to some serious investments, and the fourth revolution is not different. KPMG’s recent figures have estimated that the component market of Industry 4.0 is estimated to be worth more than $4 trillion by the year 2020.
This number is actually above the expected value of the Internet of Things market, which Gartner estimated to be $3.7 trillion by the year 2020. Recent UK government report states that every business should be able to benefit, by implementing Industry 4.0. It claims, that the utilization of this truly advanced technology could help benefit the country’s manufacturing sector with £445 billion and create around 175,000 new jobs.
We can, of course, understand that most of these numbers are caused by the thirst for both severe cost reductions and higher productivity, and all of that by using real-time data. But as long as all the parties can benefit from it, there is no doubt in my mind, that everyone out there will be advocating for the matter.
While the fourth revolution is still in its evolving stage, and we will only see a better picture after years of trial and error, companies who are adopting the technologies today – fully realize its potential. The very same companies are also struggling with recruiting new employees with the right skills and tries to improve the level of their current workforce to be able to handle all the new responsibilities. So the question that you can ask yourself here – will you be ready, when the revolution will actually happen.