You may not have noticed it, but a new industrial revolution is already underway. All around us, the rampant progress of internet technologies and big data have changed our lives forever. Out of the general public’s view, something similar is going on in the world of manufacturing.
In fact, it may surprise you to learn that this ongoing revolution is the fourth iteration of the industrial revolution that began in the 18th Century. What were the others, you ask?
- Industry 1.0: The original industrial revolution – steam engines and mechanization
- Industry 2.0: Led by the advent of mass production and electricity in the early 20th Century
- Industry 3.0: The age of computers and the Internet
You can see the progression in the critical technologies of the time that drive these revolutions. So what is the next wave going to be? Read on to find out.
What is Industry 4.0?
While the manufacturing sector was at the core of the first two industrial revolutions, it has been somewhat removed from the critical developments caused by the widespread adoption of computers and the internet. This ‘information age’ revolutionized so many aspects of human life, but mass manufacturing still takes its cues from Henry Ford and the paradigm of the 2nd Industrial Revolution.
Industry 4.0 brings the focus back onto manufacturing. It refers to the marriage of the modern digital technologies with mass manufacturing technologies through the implementation of techniques like automation and data analytics. It is the culmination of advancements in several different fields, each one complementing the capabilities of the next.
Even the name ‘Industry 4.0’ is an acknowledgement of the role played by software technology in spearheading this advancement. Here are some of the major components of the high-tech Industry 4.0 ecosystem
The First Wave: 3D Printing, Artificial Intelligence and Automation
These technologies will at least conceptually be familiar to most people at this point. 3D printing has been around for a few years now and has already had a dramatic impact on manufacturing by allowing for Rapid Prototyping. As the technology improves, older subtractive manufacturing techniques will quickly become obsolete and become replaced by increasingly customizable solutions.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning have made great strides in recent years, complementing the development of the hyper-connected Internet of Things (IoT) that capture more precise and more numerous data points than ever before. This data would be impossible to analyse were it not for the possibilities offered by machine learning to constantly pore over the data and arrive at actionable learnings as a result.
All of this points to a massive increase in automation as manufacturers seek to capture the efficiency gains made possible by data analytics, and further advancements in robotics technology is going to make this progress towards automation even more inevitable.
The Not-so-Distant Future: Mass Customization
The previous section mentioned some of the key technologies driving Industry 4.0, and the possible implications of their working together. Given the rapid speed unpredictable nature of this technological advancement, I’m going to refrain from any major prognostications. However, allow me to paint a picture of only one of the many, many implications of Industry 4.0 in the medium term.
With manufacturing increasingly embracing Industry 4.0, the ability to constantly monitor and adapt the manufacturing process has opened the door to a greater degree of product customization than ever before, while internet connectivity has allowed the participation of stakeholders who were never previously involved in the actual manufacturing – the consumers.
This can allow for Mass Customization – when a mass-produced product is created, to scale, while also fully tailored and developed to meet specifications from the consumer or client. Instead of just one single version of a product, it will be possible to create as many varieties of the core design as required. This consumer experience is far removed from what we have been used to, and is only one of the many ways that Industry 4.0 can manifest to change our lives.
The Endgame: No More Human Intervention
The software systems driving Industry 4.0 will render obsolete more than just older technology and techniques; the humans needed to run those technologies will also be obsolete. The constant monitoring, learning and adjusting necessary in manufacturing will be entirely automated and any human intervention will only get in the way.
This degree of manufacturing process optimization has the potential to unlock massive advantages for manufacturers through increased productivity, greater competitiveness and increased profitability.
Of course, such a massive change to human employment patterns would also have social, political and economic implications that are beyond the purview of this blog. Luckily, this shift is only at its very earliest stages, which gives us some time to adapt to these coming changes.
But there is no doubt that these changes are coming. Industry 4.0 is now a juggernaut poised to sweep across the global manufacturing sector. Those who adopt early would leave themselves best placed to benefit from its advantages.
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