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Industry 4.0: Evolution or Revolution?

September 26, 2018


The term “Industry 4.0” was coined to describe the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Anant Kale (@anantkale), Co-Founder and CEO of AppZen, explains, “The first industrial revolution mechanized production using steam power, the second gave us the assembly line for mass production and the third industrial revolution gave us advanced automation using IT and electronics. We are at the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution driven by artificial intelligence, robotics, and web services. This latest revolution is proving to be the most disruptive yet, taking automation to levels most of us can’t imagine.”[1] Although I believe it’s safe to say most pundits agree there is a revolution in the making, some pundits believe what’s happening is more evolutionary than revolutionary.


Revolutionary Ideas Evolutionary Implementation


Tom Canning (@TomCanning), Vice President at Canonical Group Ltd., argues very few companies can afford a revolutionary approach to Industry 4.0. As an example, he points to the commercial refrigeration industry.[2] He explains, “Refrigeration companies hardly ever rip out and completely replace their existing systems. Replacing hundreds or even thousands of industrial fridges, freezers and delivery vehicles would be prohibitively expensive and threaten service continuity. Instead, they are integrating new connected technologies into their existing ecosystems, establishing and bootstrapping a digital layer onto their physical world. As a result, refrigeration companies are able to better capture and analyze the vital data that already exists within these systems and extract it in a way that unleashes new true business insights and value.” I suspect what Canning describes is happening in the refrigeration industry is true for many industrial sectors. Nevertheless, Canning touches on many of the revolutionary ideas often associated with Industry 4.0. They include:


Big Data: Data lies at the very heart of Industry 4.0. We live in the era of Big Data — an era in which most companies are challenged by all of the data they can collect and store. Companies require good master data management to extract the most out of their data and to avoid serious pitfalls associated with data collection, storage, and analysis. Andrew Rossow (@RossowEsq), an Internet attorney and adjunct professor, writes, “Industry 4.0 is not a new technology, nor is it a new business structure. It is our society’s current trend of data exchange and automation in the creation and development of new technologies.”[3] The growing trend is for companies to move their data to the Cloud where it can be more effectively managed.


The Cloud: So-called cloud computing involves the delivery of computer services over the web and generally involves a combination of servers, storage, databases, networking, software, and analytics. By using cloud services, companies know software is always up-to-date and the latest version is being used company wide. Benefits often associated with cloud computing include: cost, speed, scale, improved productivity, heightened performance, and reliability. Cloud services can be provided as infrastructure as a service (IaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), and software as a service (SaaS). Clouds can be either public (i.e., owned and operated by a third party) or private (i.e., used exclusively by a single enterprise). Today, the most common configuration is a hybrid cloud which combines public and private clouds.


The Internet of Things (IoT): The IoT is sometimes referred to as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Stephen Gold, President and CEO of the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation, notes, “While IoT has delivered its promise of creating new efficiencies for finance and retail firms, industrial manufacturers have struggled to understand how it will create new business models and increase customer satisfaction.”[4] He predicts, “This will change.” He believes IoT adoption will be driven by three things: Predictive maintenance; self-optimizing production; and, automated inventory management.


Sensors: Sensors are becoming ubiquitous they become more affordable and the analytics supporting them improve. Sensors are the front-end of the IoT ecosystem, which consists of sensors (data generators), connectivity (the IoT), and advanced analytics (cognitive technologies that make sense of the data and make insights actionable). Today people talk about smart homes, smart cities, and smart factories. All of these “smart” entities rely on sensors as well as other components of the IoT ecosystem.


Cognitive Computing: Keith Mills writes, “Cognitive computing refers to next-generation information systems that understand, reason, learn and interact. These systems do this by continually building knowledge and learning, understanding natural language, and reasoning and interacting more naturally with human beings than traditional programmable systems.”[5] As noted above, cognitive platforms are an integral part of the IoT ecosystem.


Blockchain: Gold asserts, “[Blockchain] technology creates a seamless way for digital information to be stored, recorded, and distributed but not falsified or copied. Experts predict it will play an increasingly large role in other industries, including manufacturing. Think of it as a new, more trustworthy way of building digital relationships.”

Other technologies often mentioned in association with Industry 4.0 include additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing) and robotics. Combined these technologies create conditions for the next industrial revolution. It may unfold more slowly than some analysts expect, but the end state of full implementation will indeed be revolutionary.


What to Expect from Industry 4.0


Michael Kanellos, a technology analyst at OSIsoft, observes, “The factory of the future always seems around the corner because it’s a never ending job. Manufacturing plants and equivalent facilities like oil refineries and power stations stand as remarkable achievements in engineering and process innovation, but they are also complex, multifaceted and can always be improved.”[6] Technologies, like cognitive computing, have been developed to deal with complex, multifaceted situations. They can deal with ambiguous as well as clear cut scenarios. While I agree with Kanellos that the factory of future is a journey rather than a destination, smart factories will be almost unrecognizable to workers from past industrial revolutions. They will be highly automated, often running autonomous processes driven by cognitive computers. They will be highly connected; providing a constant flow of data to be analyzed and acted upon. Factory workers will work side-by-side with robotic counterparts. Business executives will find decision-making much more data driven. Machines will self-diagnose; alerting maintenance crews to impending problems. Some industries are well into Industry 4.0 and the future is much clearer for them than industries struggling to understand the Digital Age. Like all revolutions, there will be winners and losers. Adapting Industry 4.0 technologies to your unique situation, will help put your organization on the path to victory. It’s likely your business will look much different on the other side of the revolution; but, it will have survived.


[1] Anant Kale, “AI Expert: How the Fourth Industrial Revolution Will Impact Our Lives,” PSFK, 7 October 2016.
[2] Tom Canning, “Industry 4.0 is an Evolution, Not a Revolution,” IndustryWeek, 23 May 2018.
[3] Andrew Rossow, “Bringing Blockchain Into Industry 4.0,” Forbes, 11 April 2018.
[4] Stephen Gold, “Four Digital Trends Manufacturers Should Watch for in 2018,” IndustryWeek, 8 January 2018.
[5] Keith Mills, “Industry 4.0 – The Smart Factory Revolution,” Metrology.News, 18 May 2018.
[6] Michael Kanellos, “What to Expect in the Factory of the Future,” IndustryWeek, 19 June 2018.

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