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Nancy Powaga
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November 14, 2019

What is Industry 4.0?

The Industrial Revolution conjures images of smoggy London skies and Dickensian toil. A lot has changed since the 18th century and the initial transition of manufacturing from hand methods to mass production. In fact, there have been two additional industrial revolutions in the meantime.

The Second Industrial Revolution occurred around the turn of the 20th century thanks to technological advancements such as the railroad, electrical power, and the widespread use of machinery. Then came the Third Industrial Revolution, or the Digital Revolution, which kicked off in the middle of the 20th century. This stage marked a shift from production via analogue machines to a digital infrastructure including computers, microprocessors, and the Internet.

vintage-computer

Now that our history lesson’s out of the way, let’s talk about today. We stand at the very beginning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in which new technologies promise to bridge the physical and the digital. The world is in for rapid, disruptive change thanks to artificial intelligence, the democratization of mobile technology, quantum computing, the Internet of Things, and myriad other advances.

These fast-paced changes inspire equal parts excitement and fear. On one hand, new efficiencies in supply chain, transportation, and communications promise to improve the quality of life around the globe. Meanwhile, many people fear that their livelihoods will be replaced by automation.

This leads us to the concept of Manufacturing 4.0, a movement which zeros in on how these technologies impact the manufacturing industry. 

The principles behind Manufacturing 4.0

We’re optimistic for an increase in safe and rewarding jobs spurred by concrete technological improvements in manufacturing. Done right, Manufacturing 4.0 will be realized through four central methods:

  • Interconnection. People will be able to communicate with machinery and tools via the Internet of Things. Importantly, machines and devices are also able to share data with one another.
  • Information transparency. Expect a huge influx of data enabled by these interconnected technologies and people. Improved information has the potential to touch every point in the manufacturing processes. Operators, managers, and workers will be able to make data-driven decisions when it comes to improving processes, training, factory layouts, and more.
  • Technical assistance. Humans will not have to parse through this information alone. New systems will aid leaders and teams to make informed decisions based on the quick and systematic aggregation of the data collected with the help of information transparency. Computers can detect trends and produce visualizations so that managers and workers can make data-driven choices and plan ahead. Aside from helping people think and reason better, cyber physical systems aka smart machines, will also be there to perform or support physical tasks that are too difficult or unsafe for humans.
  • Decentralized decisions. In some cases, systems will make decisions on their own. This is automation. The promise of automation relies on the imagination of people performing manufacturing processes today. These folks know their work best and can provide the best insights into how technology can amplify and standardize their hard work.

People-powered innovation

manufacturing-4.0While the principles behind Manufacturing 4.0 are promising, you might be apprehensive about how you can implement these lofty ideas in your industry. After all, manufacturing touches a wide variety of industries from automobiles to clothing, specialty chemicals to aerospace equipment, and everything else produced on planet Earth. How can you make business decisions about technology that will produce specific, yet ongoing, impact?

Start small. Ask around. The people who work in your manufacturing plants and facilities are the experts at the work they do every day. Seek the input of manufacturing workers and managers on how their jobs could be made easier.

Does paperwork keep foremen working late into the night? Think about ways that smart technology could streamline this work, such as replacing pen and paper with tablets that store data in a centralized, cloud database. Explore optical character recognition (OCR) solutions that detect handwriting to convert scattered, paper-based information into digital files. Voila! The beginnings of interconnection and information transparency at your organization.

There are countless examples of how manufacturing processes can be improved today. And given the volume and complexity of work done on any manufacturing site, it’s inevitable that one small improvement will cascade into others until eventually, your organization will become a lean, mean Manufacturing 4.0 machine. 

Check out our recent post on inventory control for manufacturing to gain more insight into current applications of industry 4.0 in the industry.

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