What is industry 4.0?
Every major change in the status quo comes with a buzzword and the one currently littering blog posts and press releases from manufacturing companies is Industry 4.0. But what does it actually mean?
The term Industry 4.0 itself was coined by the German government to describe a new stage of global industrialisation that is closely related to the idea of a fourth industrial revolution.
The prevailing idea is that so far there have been three industrial revolutions: mechanisation powered by steam; electrification; and the digital revolution powered by computers and the Internet.
Now we are supposedly at the opening of a fourth industrial revolution in which breakthroughs such as machine learning, Big Data, the Internet of Things (IoT) and 3D printing are going to fundamentally change the way industry and the wider world works.
Industry 4.0 shares many of the same themes but is more specifically focused on the impact to manufacturing rather than society more broadly and essentially refers to the appearance of the “smart factory”.
Just as wireless technology and shrinking processors and sensors have led to the dawn of the IoT in the consumer space, the Industrial IoT (IIoT) is creeping into factories. This allows machines, sensors and computers to communicate with each other wirelessly, providing data about every stage in the production line and creating a digital mirror of the physical factory.
Machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and embedded intelligence allows many simple decisions to be taken by the machines themselves, reducing the need for supervision. At the same time increasingly advanced data analytics means the wealth of data churned out can be used to do things like optimise processes or monitor machine health without human involvement.
The final element of Industry 4.0 is the ability to directly translate digital instructions into physical action through robotics and 3D printing.
The promise is a vastly more efficient manufacturing system. The downsides are job losses and the prospect of extending the reach of hackers into the physical domain.