Industry 4.0: A technological revolution or an evolution in human behaviour?
We’ve been talking about Industry 4.0 for a decade. Yet, for many manufacturers, the tangible meaning of Industry 4.0 is still as elusive as it was when the phrase was first coined by the German Government in its ‘High Tech Strategy’ published in 2011.
The term Industry 4.0 implies a technological revolution. This is accompanied by the general perception that Industry 4.0 means robotics, smart sensors and digital twins. The technology components of industry 4.0 are not in themselves revolutionary, in fact, many of the underpinning technologies have been around for decades: RFID, neural networks and the Internet of Things, to name just a few.
Did you know? The first IoT device, a remote control toaster was invented by John Romkey in the 1990.
You could argue that if Industry 4.0 is a true technological revolution, it’s the first technological revolution that’s been named before it’s actually happened!
However, there are some fundamental characteristics that distinguish Industry 4.0 from the general evolution and maturing of technology. Let’s explore these in more detail.
Whilst the technologies themselves are not so new, the way in which they intersect is creating a new era of operational intelligence for manufacturers. Wireless mesh networks, collectively referred to as “The Internet of Things” gather data from industrial sensors communicating over cyberspace. When these data signals are historised, analysed and contrasted over time you can build up a picture of how well your production line is performing and what can be done to improve it. It’s a bit like looking into the past to predict the future.
Technologies like Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM) and collaborative robotics introduce flexibility into the design and operation of production processes. Combining these capabilities with continuous streams of operating data enable manufacturers to edge closer to Lot Size One.
Lot Size One: The ability to make any product, at any time in a batch of one and still be economically viable.
“But why do manufacturers want to make a single instance of a product?”, I hear you ask. Read on.
Henry Ford famously said that the customer could “have a car in any colour, as long as it was black”. This was the birth of mass manufacturing; a movement that democratised access to luxury goods. With this movement, came competitive rivalry that drove down the cost of raw materials, sub-assemblies and finished goods, sometimes at extreme and irreparable humanitarian and environmental costs.
As standards of living rise across the globe, people are more able and more inclined to make ethical purchases. People care about where their food and goods come from and they are willing to take a stand against unethical manufacturing practices like sweatshops, poor treatment of animals, and activities that harm the environment.
This is prompting a total mindset shift for manufacturing. It’s no longer about making things cheaply, but instead about making things ethically and sustainably. Considering the whole product lifecycle and the impacts on each and every stakeholder, including workers, suppliers, consumers and the environment.
The way that we consume products is changing. Not very long ago, cars were assets. We bought them outright, they depreciated over time, and then we sold them on. Servitisation is changing that very concept. Today, more than 90% of new cars are bought on a purchase hire or leasing agreement. Today, we pay for a car in the same way we pay for our energy bills, like a utility.
For manufacturers, servitisation allows them to build predictable revenue streams whilst also getting closer to their customers, allowing them to increase their rate of innovation. For consumers, it democratises access to luxury goods and services once thought to be out of reach to the average person. For the environment, servitisation will enable us to reduce, reuse, and recycle manufactured goods, helping to create a circular economy.
Skills and jobs for Industry 4.0
The pace of change of technology also creates an interesting challenge for workers. Forget the old saying “a job for life” – it is likely that we will have to upskill multiple times during our lives to maintain currency in the workplace.
How about employment itself? Internet technologies such as social media are creating opportunities for self-employment, based on professional or creative skills. Side hustlers will continue to work for an employer whilst exploiting their skills in their spare time, portfolio professionals will take on multiple part-time roles at once, and the more risk-inclined will become gig economy professionals, moving freely between temporary jobs. The number of new companies founded is also expected to increase by up to 50% by 2030.
It’s not just what we will be doing in the workplace that is different, but also how we will be doing it. With fully autonomous processes there will be more opportunity for flexible and remote working and as a result, a better work-life balance. Let’s make technology work to our advantage!
A technological revolution or an evolution in human behaviour?
So here’s the big question. Is a technology revolution driving new consumer behaviours, or is the evolution of society spurring technological advancements?
Whatever the answer, I believe that Industry 4.0 is unlocking a new era in human empowerment. Technology is automating mundane and repetitive tasks, challenging workers to develop new skills, and ultimately enabling us to be more creative, agile, and innovative. The very things that humans were made to be.
Technology is ultimately enabling us to become more human.
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