ELI5: what is Industry 4.0?

In the first industrial revolution, steam power led to the growth of factories and mechanisation. In the second industrial revolution, electricity and assembly lines brought us mass production. The third industrial revolution revolved around computers, the internet and automation.

Now, we’re reaching the precipice for the fourth industrial revolution (or Industry 4.0).

But just what is Industry 4.0? Here’s a handy ELI5 of the looming changes we’re facing.

What is industry 4.0?

Industry 4.0 carries on the computerisation trend of the third industrial revolution. It revolves around greater levels of digitisation, automation, and connectivity.

In a nutshell, Industry 4.0 refers to the linking and networking of a diverse mix of machines and machine-operated processes. All through the creation of IoT connections and cyber-physical systems.

Say what now?

Before moving on, let’s break that terminology down. First, the internet of things (more commonly called IoT) refers to the interconnection of all types of devices through the internet. This chain of connectivity allows the flow of data from system to system.

So, information previously stuck in a silo syncs across a series of programs in moments. This, in turn, helps automate and optimise all manner of processes to generate benefits for the industry, the economy, and the end user alike.

Meanwhile, cyber-physical systems refer to the blending of digital algorithms with the physical world. Think a garden tended by robots, using sensors to detect when watering is required. Or smart traffic lights, where different lights communicate over the network and collectively figure out how best to route traffic. (All building on an IoT powered foundation.)

Industry 4.0 is rooted in this smart infrastructure. So, back to the titular question: what is Industry 4.0? It’s about technology bridging the gaps between the digital and physical world. It’s about a future suffused with connected technology and seamless, intelligent automation on a vast scale. And it’s about remote control of any connected ‘thing’, and the enormous opportunity this capability creates.

The driving technology

Industry 4.0 will mean an influx of ‘smart’ machinery with cognitive computing ability. That is, AI functionality that allows machines to react to each other, with human team members, and with the world around them.

This means they need to be able to relay, analyse and act on data. They also need to be able to communicate with each other compatibly and consistently. Think the internet of things, but on a scale that spans a huge, complex and intricately linked network. So, massive data use, cloud and edge computing are all key to Industry 4.0.

With this comes the need for machine learning and AI algorithms that will help the machines make decisions. (Simple ‘if this, then that’ logic will struggle to keep pace with the explosion of possibilities opened by Industry 4.0.)

Meanwhile, computer vision, natural language processing and speech recognition are also key. These tools will allow machines and programs to smoothly interact with human team members.

What do we stand to gain?

With any industrial revolution, we gain something. So, what is Industry 4.0 set to bring to the table?

  • Efficiency and opportunities

The idea of Industry 4.0 is that it gives a view of the entire operation within a business. Everything communicates with everything else. So, if there’s an issue or an opportunity, there’s a better chance of spotting it early. Then, everything works in sync to address it. For example, predictive maintenance that prevents a costly issue later.

  • Environmental impact

The AI and data side of Industry 4.0 also stands to have a positive impact when it comes to environmental issues. We will be able to recognise and adapt to different demand levels or supply issues in real-time. So, this means better asset management. Every resource gets tracked and used in the most efficient way, cutting down drastically on waste.

  • Safety

Beyond anything else, Industry 4.0 puts machines, computers and robotics into more use. This stands to improve the safety and wellbeing of human workers. The machines will take on more jobs that aren’t safe for humans. (As well as the jobs that are so mind-numbing they harm mental wellbeing.)

The challenges of Industry 4.0

There are also some challenges surrounding Industry 4.0.

For instance, there’s the issue of a skills gap. When Industry 4.0 hits, it will result in a major job reshuffle. There are concerns that some lower-skilled workers may struggle to adapt to the new roles that they will hold.

Another challenge facing Industry 4.0 comes from the setup needed. That is, we don’t yet have an infrastructure that can support it. And the necessary equipment comes with high costs.

Stability and security also present hurdles. Industry 4.0 relies on connected systems and real-time data transfer. So, it needs an ongoing, stable internet connection. Plus, the data used will need tight security. Unless we can guarantee the security and stability of the systems, a small blip could hold a big impact.

Industry 4.0: the future?

An industrial revolution is a complete and marked change in the way that we work and live. They’re triggered when technology advances to unlock new opportunities and possibilities.

Industry 4.0 is the next industrial revolution. One powered by advances in connectivity, data use, AI and automation.

And, though nascent, it’s proving to be more than another buzzword. What, then, is Industry 4.0? It’s a confluence of trends and technologies that promises to reshape the way things are made; the way businesses run; the way we work. It’s the future.

Useful links

The data lifecycle: explained

The awkward interplay of man vs machine

What is machine learning? A beginner’s guide