Industry 4.0: Buzz or Boom?

The First Industrial Revolution


Modern industry and manufacturing are a far cry from the steam powered origins from whence they came. It is unlikely that James Watt, whilst designing his revolutionary steam engine, could imagine the vast industrial applications his designs have ultimately led to.  Technology is applied knowledge and prior to the 18th century there was little or no codified technological knowledge. During the first industrial revolution metallurgy, thermodynamics and chemistry became smelting factories, powered equipment and chemical plants. Industry was born.


The Technical Revolution (2nd Industrial Revolution)


The time between 1859 and 1873 is widely acknowledged as the most fruitful period for invention in our entire human history. It was during the technical or 2nd industrial revolution that we saw the feedback loop between science and technology rapidly accelerate. Steel manufacture, Oil & Gas, electrical power, artificial chemical plants and the vast spread of transport networks led to the rise of enormous production chains. The new economies of scale in manufacturing created unprecedented throughput. Industrial giants were created; Ford Motors, Shell, Dupont, General Electric and Carnegie.


The Digital Revolution (3rd Industrial Revolution)


Perhaps it was the invention of the point-contact transistor in 1947 at Bell Labs, which ushered in the third industrial revolution, however by the time the first TCP/IP message was sent in 1968 the age of digital technology was truly upon us. The digital revolution in industry and manufacturing has seen the rise of robotics with embedded micro-processors that allow for greater speeds, unmatched accuracy and increased worker safety. Global communications chains have allowed for expansion by smaller companies into global markets once only the domain of industrial giants. Digitized on-demand manufacturing and delivery has allowed for far greater access to markets hitherto unreachable. Communications systems span the globe connecting a vast array of disparate sites to form unified production chains. The digital revolution delivered world-wide communications to the vast majority of the human race.


The New Wave of Industry


Does the advent of thinking machines, cognitive computing, self-correcting artificial intelligence constitute the rise of a fourth revolution in industry?

Modern industry is grappling with challenges unlike at any other time. Disruptive technologies that can change society in a matter of years are becoming commonplace. The availability of raw materials, once abundant and inexpensive, has become unpredictable and vary greatly in cost, quality and availability. Increased regulation and reporting adds layers of complexity to already overburdened systems. The need to visualise and act upon vast rafts of unprocessed data streaming in from far flung heavy assets becomes imperative in ever more competitive markets. Cyber security threats abound as the prevalence of cloud storage flourishes. Automation of decision chains becomes essential as shop floor knowledge disappears.


“Industry 4.0 is not the digitalization of the mechanical industry, because that is already here. It is about getting real-time data into the supply and manufacturing chain… If we use this IoT [Internet of Things] data and combine it in a different way, we can be more flexible. We can adapt faster.”


Prof. Peter Gutzmer Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technology Officer, Schaeffler.


What does the Industrial Internet of Things(IIoT) allow for in modern industry?


The seamless alignment of technology, process and people is the promise of a new age of industry. An age where automated operational decision making reduces decision cycle time and renders more accurate and flexible decisions.  Real time data delivery and visualisations utilising a combination of cloud and edge computing allow for predictive maintenance schedules to be optimised, reducing machine downtime and drastically increasing equipment health. The use of wearable technology that allows for vastly increased worker safety and swift response times to potential or actual failures. Visualisation of the entire value chain from end-to-end, combined with the ability to zero in and alter any link in any chain within those processes from a hand held device is becoming an actuality. For more information about aligning technology with people and process click here.


Is the wave of digital transformation in heavy asset industry a true revolution?


Some believe that cognitive computing and AI will deliver factories that require almost no human oversight. The term cognitive manufacture has been coined by IBM to describe the Watson led advances in modern manufacture. There is a clear move within major manufacturing, oil and gas industries and mining toward AI infrastructure handling operational decision making. The digital tools that are now available give unparalleled control over every step within the value chain. As conventional mechanical chains are being converted into digital chains tiny alterations made in one process within the larger chain can lead to dramatic reductions in downtime, waste or running costs.


Industry 4.0: Revolution or Evolution


The pressures of competitive markets naturally encourage innovation. We have seen throughout history that scientific and technological breakthroughs propel industrial invention. In modern context we see the advances in computing with machine learning directly impacting efficiency in industry. Such as predicting production bottlenecks and being able to alter the production chain to compensate. The extent that machine learning will alter the industrial landscape is yet to be seen. The potential for unimagined industrial capabilities emerging given the surge in technological advance at this time must be considered to be significant.


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