Industry 4.0: It's all about information technology this time

The so-called Industry 4.0 concept now being embraced in Europe predicts the Internet of Things will change manufacturing as we know it.

A favorite theme many speakers -- especially futurists -- like to invoke is that we've passed the industrial revolution, or even the information revolution that superseded it, and we're now in some kind of "post-information" revolution. Some people, especially on the European side of the pond, have another name for it, calling it "Industry 4.0."

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Photo: Joe McKendrick

Just to clarify this phenomenon, the numbering wasn't meant to align with any of the information technology waves of the past few decades -- Web 2.0, et. al. But the transformation promised with Industry 4.0 has everything to do with IT.

"Industry 4.0" was the brainchild of the German government, and describes the next phase in manufacturing -- a so-called fourth industrial revolution. The phases consist of the following:

  • Industry 1.0: Water/steam power
  • Industry 2.0: Electric power
  • Industry 3.0: Computing power
  • Industry 4:0: Internet of Things (IoT) power

As you can imagine, building a new industrial paradigm around IoT calls for IT managers and professionals to step up and support new growth in new ways. Many of the technologies enterprises are putting into place today will form the core of Industry 4.0.

Boston Consulting Group (BCG) just published a primer that identifies the nine technology areas that underpin Industry 4.0, and it almost reads like the checklist of any enterprise IT shop seeking to keep up with the digital era:

Horizontal and vertical system integration: Industry 4.0 calls for an enterprise view of data and networking of systems. It's the only way to ensure collaboration not only across enterprise departments, but also between partners across value chains.

The Internet of Things: With IoT, devices and embedded computing sensors will be communicating, delivering real-time responses.

Cybersecurity: Extremely critical for building confidence in the whole new framework, especially with billions of devices and communications channels criss-crossing one another. IT professionals have been working with security protocols for some time now, time to multiply the need by a factor of a thousand.

The cloud: The need to support a multitude of devices and sensors, along with the piles of data they generate, may best be handled by cloud services that will provide real-timeness and scalability. Many industrial monitoring and control systems -- not too mention ERP systems -- are now moving to the cloud. "The performance of cloud technologies will improve, achieving reaction times of just several milliseconds," BCG predicts.

Big data analytics: The availability of data on all aspects of product development, production and testing adds a new dimension to manufacturing, enabling more targeted innovation, marketing and decision making.

Simulation: With all this big data and compute power from the cloud, virtual modeling of product scenarios will enable rapid testing and therefore more innovation -- failing fast will be very rapid and very cheap in virtual worlds.

Additive manufacturing (3D printing): "With Industry 4.0, additive-manufacturing methods will be widely used to produce small batches of customized products that offer construction advantages, such as complex, lightweight designs.High-performance, decentralized additive manufacturing systems will reduce transport distances and stock on hand."

Augmented reality: BCG predicts that such systems -- already making their way to the market in the form of offerings such as Google Oculus Rift and Microsoft HoloLens -- will play a role in helping to improve decision making and productivity. Virtual training and on-the-job instructions are two potential applications. "Workers may receive repair instructions on how to replace a particular part as they are looking at the actual system needing repair," the BCG report explains. "This information may be displayed directly in workers' field of sight using devices such as augmented-reality glasses."

Robots: Today's robots tend to take the form of mechanical arms on assembly lines, but they are increasing getting smarter, and taking on more sophisticated roles beyond rote assembly.

Not mentioned in the BCG report, but perhaps just as much a part of the emerging Industry 4.0 paradigm is the growth of mobile, anywhere, anytime computing. The fact that a manager can run an ERP system from a smartphone suggests that even manufacturing can be accomplished remotely. With 3D printing/additive manufacturing bringing actual production close to the source (no need to farm out work overseas), it may even be possible to design and administer the production of goods from mobile devices.

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