From the evolution of water and steam-powered machines of Industry 1.0 in the 1800’s to the introduction of electricity allowing mass production at the start of the 20th century – now known as Industry 2.0 – human advancement has known no bounds.
Recent decades have seen the advent of Industry 3.0 through circuit chips, independent software systems and machine-based workforces, each of which has facilitated the massive scaling of human productivity on a global scale.
And now, we are on the cusp of Industry 4.0. But what does that mean, exactly?
Expect an era of fully-integrated robotic systems powered by smart computers that take machine learning to a whole new level. An environment in which humans may have very little involvement at all, where manufacturing can run twenty-four-seven thanks to automated capabilities.
In basic terms, industry 4.0 relates to the “smart factory.” A fully-automated warehouse where computerised systems manage the entire physical process – and even a level of the decision making.
People will co-operate with – rather than control – AI-powered operatives, leveraging real-time information that is in constant motion within a hyper-connected network.
The Tenets of Industry 4.0
- Interoperability: Connected devices that work alongside their human counterparts in collaborative processes.
- Seamless Information Networks: Each device will leverage a continual supply of real-time information to build a virtual picture of the real world for contextual relevance.
- Machine Assistance: Machines will take on tasks deemed unsafe for humans, as well as supporting human decision making or problem-solving.
- Decentralised Decisions: Systems will become as autonomous as possible, requiring minimal oversight.
Recognising the Risks
While the benefits of an automated factory are many, there are significant risks to overcome when considering this digitised age.
Data security becomes a pivotal aspect of facility management as with hyper-connected machinery, the risks associated with any level of hack increase exponentially. Similarly, protecting IP becomes increasingly complex.
Maintaining seamless work-flows is a second complication given the level of interoperability required between machines, while there may be a reluctance to trust the quality of the production process where a human review is for the most part non-existent. Moreover, employees share well-founded concerns that with automation, workers will lose their high-paying jobs.
Finally, not only will it require significant investment to maintain the technology, outages will result in exorbitant remediation costs.
To plan meaningful next steps, there are obvious barriers to overcome. There is currently a dearth of experience in implementing such systems, while many key stakeholders continue to demonstrate a hesitancy when investing in this relatively unknown space.
That said, as the technology evolves, it is more than likely that the potential efficiencies and cost-savings will outweigh current concerns. Moreover, with increased access to information, worker safety could actually improve at the same time as productivity, meaning happier employees and increased profits.
We can all be sure that Industry 4.0 will arrive – the question revolves around exactly when. It will likely be those first to the party who achieve a step up on the competition, quickly reaping the rewards of such drastic upgrades.