The 4 Industrial Revolutions (by Christoph Roser at AllAboutLean.com)

What is Industry 4.0 and how did we get here?

When talking about simFactory, it is impossible to ignore the concept of Industry 4.0, the new industrial revolution. Although most people are familiar with the latter term, many assume it only refers to the changes that took place after the introduction of steam and water-powered production methods in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, they don’t know that we are in fact already at the cusp of the 4th industrial revolution.

Indeed, the first industrial revolution started when the first mechanical loom was invented in 1784. Hand production methods were replaced by machinery and small workshops evolved into the factory system that allowed for production on a more massive scale. It wasn’t until 100 years later that the second industrial revolution began, between the late 19th and the early 20th century. With the spread of electricity, the second revolution introduced major industrial developments, such as the assembly line and mass production. The period between the second and the third revolution lasted for only a few decades. Starting from the 1970s, the rapid adoption of electronics and IT enabled further automation of production in factories. The 4th and current revolution began in the 2000s, taking automation even further, and revolves around cyber-physical production systems.

The 4 Industrial Revolutions (by Christoph Roser at AllAboutLean.com)

In cyber-physical systems, physical components, such as 3D printers, drones and robots, and digital software components, such as data analytics and sensor technology, are aggregated into a network of interacting elements. While the initial inputs and final outputs are customarily physical, information often transitions between physical and digital states during the manufacturing process. For example, it is possible to scan a physical component and model a digital representation of this item based on the scan. These digital data can then be turned into physical information again by 3D printing this component.

Another aspect of information digitization is the concept of digital twins, or device shadows. A digital twin is a computerized companion of a physical asset that enables real time monitoring, diagnostics and prognostics of the asset. With the ability to collect massive amounts of data from different systems, and combine and analyze these data, we can use the emerging patterns to predict future activities. For example, we can model different scenarios that might happen with the asset and how these events affect the related elements in the cyber-physical system.

Based on this information, we can start to proactively or pre-emptively address the issues that are most probable or have the greatest impact. Seeing the whole data, not just the view of one single element in the system, helps us detect root causes and fix them, instead of just fixing the symptoms. This adds complexity to maintenance planning and takes some of the human element out of decision-making. However, there is still a need for high-skilled individuals to plan, execute and maintain these systems.

Finding the right people and training them, as well as gathering the financial capital to invest in this human capital, is but one of the many challenges organizations face. They will also need to learn to work with each other in the context of entirely new business and cooperation models. This, in turn, will be followed by changes in data ownership and security. Manufacturers won’t only be concerned with data privacy across the supply chain, but also cyber security. It is crucial to ensure that they cannot be infiltrated and that their factories cannot be hijacked or shut down.

In the face of these challenges, it is important to start preparing for the upcoming changes. As the duration of the periods between technological revolutions decreases, the ability to adapt fast will determine an organization’s survival. Although time is of the essence, companies still have to move judiciously. It is not necessarily smart to adopt every technology in existence, but rather it is necessary to critically assess where one currently is and where one wants to be. From there, an organization can determine what is of the highest priority and thus focus on that first.

The new technological, business and social concepts introduced with Industry 4.0 will unquestionably affect most aspects of today’s manufacturing. While the benefits they offer are tremendous, the scale of the related challenges is equal. It is advisory for organizations to already start making small steps to prepare for the future. In the next blog post we will discuss the possible challenges that the organizations will face, and how to prevent them.