One buzzword that is being used with increasing frequency of late is Industry 4.0.
It’s a term that is being talked about widely in engineering and manufacturing circles as the fourth industrial revolution. But what does it refer to and what are its implications?
To explain Industry 4.0, a brief history lesson is helpful.
The first industrial revolution is accepted as being prompted by the invention of steam power in the 18th century and the move towards mechanisation. The second is related to the advent of electricity, the large scale production of steel and the age of mass production in the early 20th century. The third industrial revolution refers to the introduction of electronic systems and computer technologies and their role in automating manufacturing processes over the past few decades.
Now industry experts say we are on the cusp of a new age – the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0 which is thought to be required to meet modern day demands: to continually deliver high quality products that may be customised according to customer choices and delivered in the timescales that today’s consumers expect. In order to meet this expectation we are likely to see the rise of ‘smart factories’ which will make use of the complete digitization of the value chain and the constant stream of data it generates to improve and shorten processes on an on-going basis.
It is generally agreed there are three key elements to Industry 4.0. First, the Internet of Things – total connectivity across a network of intelligent sensors that produce data that can then be utilised as necessary. Secondly, the steps made in the processing of Big Data and data analytics that can produce insights for manufacturers to respond to quickly. The third part is related to what are becoming known as Cyber Physical Systems which relates to collaborating computational elements that control physical entities. A good example of a CPS is the collision avoidance system found in a modern car, where computer-based systems determine the physical outcome of a scenario.
What the smart factory of the future will look like in detail is still unclear but there are already highly-automated factories where components, conveyor systems and other machinery are equipped with sensors that produce thousands of bytes of data to help manufacture goods quickly and efficiently.
An idea of what might be possible soon is given by Siemens, which talks about machines in the smart factories of the future organising themselves and supply chains automatically linking themselves together. It says prototype development of complex systems and items will increasingly take place in the virtual world through computer modelling, enabling improvements to be made more quickly and customisation to become more affordable.
So does Industry 4.0 signal the end of employment within the manufacturing sector? Just watch any episode of “How Its Made” and you will see that some production is already very highly automated indeed, with barely an operative in sight. The manufacture of some other products still relies on traditional and time honoured practices that feature artisans or skilled craftsmen. As long as people continue to value quality and craftsmanship there will always be a place for the craftsman in industry.