‘Industry 4.0’ is, in a way, an unfortunate term. It sounds like just another run-of-the-mill buzzword, conceived by a marketing agency trying to cash in on the rapidly growing digital trend and our growing reliance on computing devices. But upon closer inspection, the term really is an accurate description of what the next industrial revolution might be like.
If we look at the previous three industrial revolutions, we’ll see that each successive industrial revolution was made possible thanks in large part to the technological advancements made during the previous one. Each technological era also produced a host of new technologies that provided the backbone for a modernized manufacturing sector. Each revolution also furthered our reliance on machine power.
So how the Industry 4.0 term came to be? Well, it was actually part of a German strategy for automated manufacturing, developed in the first half of the previous decade. In the years following its introduction, the concept has gained traction, with various companies and national governments starting projects of their own, each new project broadening and enriching the Industry 4.0 definition. That said, the different interpretations of Industry 4.0 share a common thread and that is the computerization and digital transformation of manufacturing through the combination of emerging technologies and the use of smart devices and sensors. Today, Industry 4.0 solutions are build according to the following design principles:
This principle relates to the ability of people, machines and devices to connect and communicate with each other in a system or even across systems.
Industry 4.0 applications are fueled by data collected by a myriad of sensors and smart devices. Because of this, the importance of information transparency cannot be understated. Information transparency ensures that decision-making is based on reliable data and is key for identifying potential problems and optimization opportunities within a smart manufacturing system.
Industry 4.0 systems need to have the capacity to contribute actively to the decision-making and problem-solving processes, as well as to perform tasks that are deemed unsafe for humans.
Physical systems need to have the ability to operate and make decisions autonomously and only defer to central oversight in critical cases.
Industry 4.0 technologies
The four principles listed above already give us a pretty good idea of the types of technologies that make Industry 4.0 possible. Born from the rapid computerization of the past couple of decades, these emerging technologies are already transforming many aspects of our everyday life, as well as the business sector. Technologies like blockchain, IoT, and artificial intelligence are also the prime candidates to enable the type of ‘cyber-physical’ systems – essentially smart machines – that are poised to be the backbone of Industry 4.0. Let’s take a look at some of the most important ‘Industry 4.0 technologies’.
Amid the increasing computerization and digitization of our world, the Internet-of-Things has grown from a vaguely defined vision to a technology trend with a clear identity and tangible applications. It’s frankly remarkable how quickly the concept of everyday devices using embedded electronics to collect and share data has evolved from a novelty to a commonplace thing.
In the context of Industry 4.0, IoT can be utilized to enable the ‘smart’ component of smart machines. By that, we mean to provide the machines in a factory with the means to collect data and communicate with other devices within or outside a system. Of course, can’t talk about smart devices without mentioning
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Industry 4.0 wouldn’t have been possible without the many advancements in artificial intelligence. AI is what enables machines to operate autonomously and make decisions on their own. Of particular importance here is machine learning, which allows computer systems to learn from the data they are supplied with.
Speaking of data, we need to underscore the capacity of Industry 4.0 to generate data. With potentially millions of interconnected machines, on a global scale, talking to each other and perceiving the world through a variety of sensors, the data volumes are set to be truly enormous. Even relatively small and contained Industry 4.0 systems like a smart factory are bound to produce large amounts of data as part of their daily operations. Here is the role of big data solutions, which are specifically designed to deal with large data sets.
In recent years cloud computing has become a key contributor to the growing digitization of the business sector.
Blockchain and DLT
Blockchain and distributed ledger technologies (DLT) are often overlooked in discussions about Industry 4.0, but we believe that these emerging technologies could be the linchpin of automated manufacturing. Indeed, when we look at the design principles listed above, the case for blockchain and DLT in Industry 4.0 becomes overwhelming. So let’s examine why blockchain could be crucial for making Industry 4.0 a reality.
Benefits of blockchain in Industry 4.0
One of Industry 4.0’s design principles is also at the heart of blockchain’s design philosophy. Blockchain-based systems are all about sharing information between interconnected nodes and the technology can be utilized to meet the demands of automated manufacturing. For example, a smart factory could be designed as a peer-to-peer blockchain network, where each machine is a node that performs a specific function and communicates freely with other nodes. An additional benefit of this approach is that two or more such systems (for example, multiple smart factories) can easily share information with one another, as long as they are built on the same blockchain.
Transparency and immutability
Blockchain’s ability to ensure information transparency and its resistance to data manipulation are perhaps the technology’s most valued qualities. This makes it perfect for supporting Industry 4.0 processes which, as mentioned above, require information transparency and reliable data.
Another one of blockchain’s signature characteristics that tie in neatly with an Industry 4.0 design principle. Blockchain systems are known for not having to rely on central authorities, in fact, the pursuit of decentralization has arguably been the primary driver for both the blockchain’s invention and the subsequent development of the field. Blockchain networks employ consensus mechanisms to ensure that their members follow a set of specified rules. This method could significantly boost smart machines’ ability to operate autonomously. This is further complemented by another interesting property of blockchain technology –
Some blockchain protocols like Ethereum and EOS support self-executing programs called smart contracts, which can automatically perform operations if certain conditions are met. This means that the logic that underpins various smart factory operations could be coded into smart contracts, thus further lessening the need for human oversight.
In crypto tokens, blockchain systems have a built-in mechanism for handling the economic side of Industry 4.0. For example, entities outside a smart factory can use tokens to trigger smart contracts and make other payments to the factory. This could enable a high level of customization, which was one of the goals laid out in the original Industry 4.0 strategy.
In a broader context, DLT and tokens could be the backbone of a future machine economy, giving smart devices the ability not only to communicate with but also to make payments to other intelligent machines.
The fourth industrial revolution
Industry 4.0 seems to have all the markings of an industrial revolution. It utilizes emerging technologies to build on the foundation provided by the previous industrial revolution. These new technologies complement each other in ways that enable powerful new applications and manufacturing methods. It also has the potential to impact many aspects of everyday life. And while it remains to be seen whether this will happen, blockchain, IoT and the other Industry 4.0 technologies seem to be perfect tools to help fulfill this potential.