The first three industrial revolutions were impressive in their own right. They introduced steam power, electrified factories, assembly lines and early attempts at automation and computer-controlled processes.
Industry 4.0 is building on the underlying goal — multi-system integration, higher efficiency and real-time decision-making — and turning all of manufacturing, and human industry in general, on its ear.
Industry 4.0 is underway today, and it’s using an incredible slate of technologies to make our factories and supply chains more agile, capable and efficient than ever. Here’s a look at what’s driving all this change.
Connected Technologies and Real-Time Decision-Making
We’ve come to refer to our worldwide networks of connected technologies as the “Internet of Things” (IoT) or, in our case, the “Industrial” IoT.
The IIoT offers a way for manufacturing plants and distribution centres to build cyber-physical systems that monitor their own performance, shunt important operational data into enterprise planning systems and react to outside factors such as changes in the market, customer needs and even the weather.
In fact, the IIoT is the key to realizing a goal that’s common across the industry: truly “smart” factories.
IIoT devices like sensors gather operational information from all kinds of infrastructure — including stamps, lathes, conveyors and material-handling implements, vehicles and lift trucks and other assembly equipment.
In turn, this data lets engineers practice more proactive maintenance before something fails entirely.
On a grander scale, IIoT networks within companies, when allowed to communicate to similar systems across multiple industry partners, help each party react more nimbly to changes in the market, shortages in raw materials and disruptions in delivery routes.
Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems
When we think about the concept of the “smart factory,” we probably think of rows of machines stamping parts from steel, putting automobiles together and churning out manufactured goods without a human in sight. The truth is a little more complicated and much more human than all that.
For a start, manufacturers are beginning to view artificial intelligence as a complement to human effort rather than a replacement for it.
In some factories, artificially intelligent machines are already at work performing inspections on finished goods with far greater accuracy than human beings alone.
The workers who used to perform inspection duties haven’t disappeared — they’re being redeployed to higher-value, higher-paying work.
The confluence of AI and automated systems is paying off in other exciting ways, too.
In a process known as “generative design,” flesh-and-blood product designers and material specialists use AI-powered computer programs to specify basic criteria for manufactured goods.
These criteria include: “How much material should be used?” and “What kind of strength and tolerances does it require?” and “How much should the finished product cost?”
Afterwards, the program generates one or more designs that meet those criteria, all without the trial-and-error that human-led design iterations and prototyping would require.
Companies involved in manufacturing and world supply chains are even turning to AI to make informed predictions, based on past and present data, about future customer behaviours and changes in the market.
This means more accurate profit forecasting, less wasted effort and leaner inventory practices.
Additive Manufacturing and Sustainable Industrial Practices
We’ve understood for a while now that reducing our use of natural resources and recycling what we’ve used already is an ecological imperative.
Industry 4.0 delivers the tools we need to make this an attractive proposition for businesses, and not just our planet.
3D printing is one tool in that arsenal. Compared with “incumbent” manufacturing methods, 3D printing requires less cutting and milling and produces less waste, since material is added instead of removed.
One of the more common plastics used in additive manufacturing, PLA, is also a derivative of corn instead of petroleum, which makes it an eco-friendlier choice.
Many 3D printing filaments can be reclaimed and reused — after a round of prototyping, for example — to give them a longer useful lifespan.
Soon, manufacturers will be able to use additive manufacturing principles to churn out small batches of highly specific, customised or region-specific products at a lower cost than with previous methods.
It also means they’ll be able to produce their own replacement parts in-house to keep critical machines running.
We can also expect more and more manufacturers to couple 3D printing with digital inventories. This takes the computer-controlled nature of modern manufacturing to even greater heights by potentially eliminating physical inventory altogether.
When products are needed further down the supply chain, manufacturers simply call upon the correct schematics from their digital inventory and let the machines do the rest.
The reduction and reclamation of manufacturing materials is a top-of-mind concern for companies everywhere these days, and 3D printing is helping lead the way.
In addition to computers and telephones, Apple is developing increasingly sophisticated machines to disassemble used electronics. Doing so keeps e-waste out of landfills and provides the company with an influx of materials to repurpose.
Other manufacturers are discovering ways to reclaim tin scraps and other materials generated in their fabrication processes which may otherwise have been discarded.
Industry 4.0 Represents True System Integration
“Vertical integration” is a buzzword, but it’s one of the central tenets of Industry 4.0. In Tesla’s Gigafactory, vertical integration means developing closer regional partnerships versus relying on overseas manufacturers.
It also means investing in robust recycling programs, so the raw materials in Tesla batteries re-enter the company’s supply chain to reduce both costs and ecological footprint.
All of the aforementioned technologies represent mechanical and digital synergy — and new ways for multiple industry partners to engage in information sharing and coordination of their processes.
And even within a single factory, horizontal and vertical system integration represents a total reimagining of what’s possible with modern technology. Consider the confluence of enterprise planning software, digital inventories, additive manufacturing and automation:
Thanks to big data, manufacturers can draw more meaningful conclusions about product demand and adjust product throughput accordingly. Their enterprise resource planning (ERP) system sends data about changes in demand or information about customisation requests to the factory floor.
There, 3D printers call on digital schematics and then get to work turning out the products, while robots and cobots inspect and prepare finished products for shipment.
Whether within a single factory or across multiple manufacturing partners, Industry 4.0 represents an unprecedented commingling of technologies. Each one is distinct, but when combined with the others, they represent a total reinvention of manufacturing as we’ve understood it.
This reinvention comes complete with lower error rates, faster and leaner production, better environmental stewardship and vastly improved levels of transparency.
Nathan Sykes is the editor of Finding an Outlet, where he writes about the latest in technology and business. Be sure to follow Nathan on Twitter @nathansykestech.