What Industry 4.0 means for you

Industry! The term evokes vivid images of long assembly lines, factory floors rife with robotic automation, and perhaps even big men putting screwdrivers into things. Creatively append a version number at the end of this well-established piece of vocabulary, however, and suddenly that crystallized mental image falters somewhat, derailed with the introduced ambiguity of a new manufacturing initiative. What precisely is Industry 4.0? More importantly, why should you care? And, most importantly, why the decimal? Are there industry point releases in the wings?

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Industry 4.0 (more accurately Industrie 4.0) is a shiny new manufacturing initiative born from and coined by the German government’s High Tech Strategy 2020 Action Plan. You might wonder what the obsession is with assigning software version numbers to things that are decidedly not software. When’s the last time you heard about Plumbing 2.3 or Government 12.1.34? More than likely, the marketing focus group probably just mentioned it resonates well amongst a tempest of acronyms for which humanity has suffered enough already.

The 4-part industrial revolution

In order to understand where the 4 came from, at the core of Industry 4.0 is the notion that the industrial revolution is ongoing, characterized by three major leaps in technology, and that we are on the precipice of the fourth step change. The four revolutions are:

  1. Mechanization: The widespread use of machine tools as a means of production realized by the harnessing of water and steam power. Think of your favorite steampunk, be it Jules Verne or the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
  2. Mass production: Division of labor and assembly line manufacturing made possible by the advent of electrical power. Illustrated to comedic effect in the Hudsucker Proxy.
  3. Computer automation: The incorporation of hardware and software to further automate production thanks to the introduction of computer technology and robotics. Think RoboCop sans all the shooting, lots of robot power, driven mostly by human decisions and controls. This is the current state of things.
  4. Cyber physical: The upcoming revolution where machines are no longer independent from each other or the products that they create, driven to as of yet unrealized levels of automation by governing software algorithms and machine learning to self-configure and optimize. Sort of like Skynet, or if you keep up with Arnold’s antics, Genisys. In other words, the springboard from which robots can come for us all.

Industries, IIoTs, and reality computing

What makes Industry 4.0 a little difficult to get your head around is that it wholly depends on some already rather large and ambitious technological developments. For example, Industry 4.0 often gets directly confused with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) because on the surface they certainly sound the same, going on about machine-to-machine communication and smart factories. Industry 4.0 in comparison is a much larger encompassing vision, for which IIoT is a necessary component. Also key to the grand Industry 4.0 vision is the continued merging of the digital and physical, which, if that’s sounding suspiciously familiar is also the basis of Autodesk’s reality computing concept.

Information Autobahn

A grain of salt or two is needed because of the narrow scope of Industry 4.0 authors: it is a German government initiative designed primarily to promote and support –no big surprise here– German industrial technology. If you go through the brochure it reads like the Who’s Who of German software and manufacturing.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some Fahrvergnügen in there for the rest of the world. The concepts laid down are indeed ambitious, and that translates to a huge amount of opportunity. A great many technologies factor heavily into whether any of this becomes successful over the next few years, including robotics, software and machine learning, design/manufacturing automation, 3D printing, embedded systems, and networking/communication technologies.

Chances are you’re involved in one of those. That, by the way, is the chief reason you should care about Industry 4.0.

The point behind the decimal

If you’re planning your own high tech action plan to picket in front of the German government, blaming them for the coming robot apocalypse, however, you’re getting a little ahead of yourself. Industry 4.0 is not without its deep challenges:

  • Software challenges: There will be some upheaval necessary in some rather large and pervasive software platforms, namely Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES). This is less of a technological impediment, but more of a market impediment in that it’s likely to displace or disrupt incumbent software vendors in this space, which include some serious heavyweights.
  • Security: One of the inherent problems in machine-to-machine communication over disparate systems is maintaining security across such a diverse software landscape. Right now consumer IoT is the guinea pig for such security practice and right now that guinea pig unfortunately finds itself at a Peruvian BBQ. Hilariously broken security is not going to roll well with industrial IP.
  • Displacement: We’ve already spoken of impending death by robot and further jobs displacement due to the changing nature of manufacturing employment. The realization of Industry 4.0 will be the first major industrial revolution that beings to displace not only labor, but knowledge workers. While unavoidable in the long term, many argue society as a whole is in no way prepared for this kind of change.

It’s unlikely all of these will be overcome without serious effort, hence the decimal behind the 4. Industry is going to need some point releases after all.


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