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Your comprehensive introduction to Industry 4.0

What is Industry 4.0? Many professionals have heard this term referenced frequently in the manufacturing, engineering, and production landscapes – but what does it really mean? 

Simply put, Industry 4.0 is a term used to define the latest generation of the “industrial” world. Over the centuries, the way we produce products, manufacture solutions, and generally innovate has evolved drastically. From the first industrial revolution, when human beings enhanced mechanisation through water and steam power, to the mass production assembly lines of Industry 2.0, we have consistently looked for ways to make production more efficient.  

Industry 4.0 is the “fourth industrial revolution”, a concept which builds on the computerisation and digitisation introduced in Industry 3.0. In this landscape, computers and people are more deeply connected, allowing for the use of automation, artificial intelligence, and the internet of things.  

What is Industry 4.0? Defining Industry 4.0 

Industry 4.0, or the fourth Industrial Revolution, takes the work that started to enhance and digitise production and manufacturing processes in Industry 3.0 to the next level. Where Industry 3.0 introduced computers and powerful machines to the manufacturing process, Industry 4.0 focuses on connecting these devices and allowing them to communicate more efficiently.  

Industry 4.0 marks the introduction of intelligent processes, automation, and connected systems into the Industrial landscape. When fully applied, the technology can support the creation of “smart factories” and autonomous creative processes.  

Elements of Industry 4.0 can be applied to all levels of the manufacturing process, from the initial manufacturing process to product development and even product lifecycle management. Some manufacturers even apply concepts of Industry 4.0 to external resources such as supply chains, allowing them to anticipate better and manage supply disruptions.  

The Evolution of Industry 4.0: Industry Processes over the Years 

Industry 4.0 earned its name as the fourth major revolution in the industrial landscape. According to experts, there have been various significant shifts in manufacturing processes over the years. The first industrial revolution began in the late 18th century, paving the way for mass production via water and steam power. Finished goods could be produced by machines rather than by hand.  

In the second industrial revolution, around a century later, new assembly lines were introduced with gas, electric, and oil power. These innovations were enhanced by the introduction of better communication capabilities via telegraphs and telephones. The third industrial revolution, which began in the midst of the 20th century, added advanced telecommunications, computers, and data analysis to manufacturing processes. Programmable language controllers began automating certain processes.  

Now, we’re in the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0), characterised by greater automation, the use of smart machines and factories, and a higher focus on data. Industry 4.0 introduced artificial intelligence, intelligent workflows, and the “Internet of Things” to manufacturing. 

The Technologies Driving Industry 4.0 

Currently, Industry 4.0 is characterised by rapid evolution and transformation. However, there are some technologies specific to the fourth industrial revolution which help to separate the concept from some previous industry innovations, such as: 

  • Cloud computing: Cloud computing is quickly becoming the cornerstone of virtually any Industry 4.0 strategy. Cloud technologies allow for the easy integration of supply chain, engineering, production, sales, and service. Additionally, cloud technologies allow industrial companies to collect and use data from various landscapes easily.  
  • Edge computing: Alongside cloud computing, edge computing has grown as a crucial part of Industry 4.0. The demands of real-time production in an innovative manufacturing landscape mean certain analysis processes must be completed on the “edge”, where data is created. The edge also helps companies to minimise security risks.  
  • The internet of Things: IoT or the Internet of Things allows for rapid communication between various machines on the manufacturing floor. Machines are equipped with sensors which allow them to connect with other web-enhanced devices over the cloud. This allows for the rapid collection of data, as well as enhanced automation. 
  • Machine learning and AI: The introduction of advanced AI and machine learning components allows manufacturing companies to take full advantage of the information they generate throughout the industrial process. AI systems can provide insights into business processes and help companies to stay one step ahead of potential issues with devices. These tools also allow for more advanced automation.  
  • Digital twins: Digital transformations offered by Industry 4.0 has allowed manufacturers to design digital twins, which are essentially virtual replicas of factories, processes, machines, production lines, and supply chains. Manufacturers can use digital twins to discover new opportunities for improving productivity and minimising downtime. 
  • XR: A relatively new addition to the Industry 4.0 landscape is extended reality. Through virtual, augmented, and mixed-reality tools, companies can streamline innovation, boost workplace creativity, and enhance collaboration on a global scale. XR can even allow for the production of new products at a more rapid pace. 

The Benefits of Industry 4.0 

Industry 4.0 can offer numerous benefits to organisations that implement it successfully. With the technologies offered by Industry 4.0, companies can build sensors, monitor manufacturing processes in real time, and minimise unexpected downtime. It’s also possible to collect data on a significant scale to assist with better decision-making and growth. 

Industry 4.0 technologies can improve employee training, collaboration, and compliance, reducing not just cyber security issues but health and safety hazards too. The technology can also help with automating repetitive tasks, improving the speed of manufacturing processes and allowing new products to go to market at a faster rate.  

Industry 4.0 technologies like XR can even assist with the creation of new technologies and products at an amazing rate, allowing creators to build new concepts without having to invest in physical resources. However, Industry 4.0 has faced some challenges too.  

Over the years, companies have struggled to find the expertise and budget required to implement Industry 4.0 technologies while adhering to compliance and cybersecurity standards. Connectivity between devices can expose companies to a number of safety challenges.  

However, as Industry 4.0 evolves, it’s growing increasingly more secure, versatile, and accessible. Today, almost every industrial company has some manner of innovative digital technology in place to assist with streamlining operations.