Discussions around the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, began six or seven years ago. Early thinking around Industry 4.0 is based on the complete automation of manufacturing facilities using vast amounts of data, robotics, AI, and machine learning.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with this current vision of Industry 4.0.
First, the conversations are being led by marketing departments to provide a new spin on current capabilities around IoT: smart sensors, cloud, augmented reality, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. Not one of these are new. The roots of IoT date back to 1982. Cloud, as a means of distributed computing, started to gain traction in the early 1990s. Funding for government-related AI projects began in the 1960s.
Today, Industry 4.0 provides marketers a framework to position some technologies that are getting a bit long in the tooth as having a new or different purpose in manufacturing.
Second, the previous three revolutions were each based on a single groundbreaking new technology. Steam power. The widespread availability of electricity to run mass assembly lines. The microprocessor. Take away any one of these specific technologies and that Industrial Revolution doesn’t happen.
More importantly, each of these technologies instantly spawned new and imaginative business models. That’s the revolution part.
Why shouldn’t you believe the current hype? What’s happening today isn’t Industry 4.0. It’s a series of sequels to the current Digital Revolution, which started in the 1950s.
This in no way suggests that manufacturers haven’t used new technologies for tremendous gain. They have. Robotics has created unprecedented levels of automation. IoT and smart sensors measuring heating and cooling sensors every 50 milliseconds have resulted in substantial cost savings on factory floors.
These advances should be viewed in the way Hollywood views sequels. The first Star Wars movie hit theatres not all that long after the start of the Digital Revolution. The ninth and final sequel debuts this winter, more than four decades after the original. They were all filmed using a camera, which has improved over time. In 1978, the movie was available on the big screen. Today, the entire Star Wars catalog can be viewed on a range of devices with different form factors.
The production inputs used for each film have fundamentally stayed the same, as have the means of consuming each film. “Star Wars” represented the revolution, and incremental advances in moviemaking technology and processes over time improved production quality.
That is where we are in manufacturing today, applying incremental changes over time using existing technologies to improve the process, increase quality, and reduce costs. The Digital Revolution is still running its course.
Industry 4.0 is coming, and when it does, it will be more than a marketing pitch. There are a few missing ingredients required to end the string of sequels and create the next manufacturing revolution.
Massive amounts of data in today’s modern manufacturing facility flow fast, and through a dashboard can look like a single cohesive unit. You know this isn’t the case. Despite advances, all the sensors, AI, automation, and robotics manufacturing are siloed. Data from sensors needs to be moved to a different system to be analyzed, with results usually requiring a manual review before they are fed back into a different system.
Industry 4.0 will connect not just a single manufacturing facility but the entire manufacturing value chain. When raw materials or other manufacturing necessities are low, systems will automatically communicate with the supplier and negotiate the best price. Sensors relaying data every 50 milliseconds will enable predictive maintenance where a replacement component arrives before the part fails.
The ability to instantly analyze massive amounts of data will connect dots across the entire manufacturing value chain, from suppliers to consumers. Data on how, when, where, and why a product is consumed will reverberate back through every part of the value chain. It will influence every decision in every part of the manufacturing process, most of the time automatically.
What we don’t have is the creation of new business models. We’re on the cusp of progress we have yet to imagine. When we do, that’s when we’ll know Industry 4.0 has arrived.
Until then, every member of the manufacturing value chain should find ways to work together to make the hype around Industry 4.0 into a reality.
Elhay Farkash is CEO of Lightapp, a provider of cloud-based analytics products to make industrial manufacturing plants more efficient.