Emerging technologies, industry 4.0 and the new age of manufacturing

7 min read


The fourth industrial revolution is well underway — and it’s thanks to a confluence of technologies we wrote off as science fiction just a few short years ago. Previous industrial revolutions focused on the introduction of a handful of new tools and processes, but Industry 4.0 requires a literally unprecedented amount of system integrations within organizations and smart investments between partners in the name of improved collaboration and data-sharing.

Let’s take a look at some of these technologies now and what kind of implications they have for the future of manufacturing.

What is industry 4.0?

To understand Industry 4.0 and where it’s taking us, it’s useful to first get a sense of where we’ve been. Here’s a crash course in the first three industrial revolutions:

  • Industry 1.0: During the late 1700s and into the 1800s, the manufacturing world focused its attention on optimizing labor by introducing more efficient tools and processes, including steam engines and even animal-assisted mechanical equipment.
  • Industry 2.0: In the early 20th century, the use of steel and electricity took off in factories. The advent of electrified equipment gave rise to assembly lines, which provided a huge boost to product throughput and overall productivity.
  • Industry 3.0: It wasn’t until the third industrial revolution of the late 1950s that manufacturers began to pair their electrically powered manufacturing infrastructure with computer control and digital systems. Industry 3.0 planted the seeds for the truly automated future we now anticipate as we embark on the fourth industrial revolution.

Each of these distinct manufacturing eras solved the problems of the day using tools that were available at the time. One thing they had in common, however, was the quest for greater interconnection between manufacturing systems, improved information accessibility and transparency, faster and more efficient production models, and the introduction of equipment types requiring less and less human intervention.

Industry 4.0 is the logical culmination of each of these prior manufacturing eras, and yet, something altogether more impressive. Its potential is so vast and world-changing that its many separate innovations deserve to be explored separately, in greater detail.

The industrial internet of things (IIoT)

Industry technology.The IIoT is one of the most promising and talked-about aspects of Industry 4.0. In fact, it’s essentially the backbone of the entire endeavor.

Broadly, it describes a way to connect digital and physical systems to produce an intelligent, transparent and efficient type of infrastructure that’s far more than the sum of its parts. You’ve probably heard the term “smart factory.” If you understand the concept, you know it’s the future of manufacturing. However, we won’t get there without significant investments in digital-physical systems and IIoT devices.

IIoT tools are what allow factories to monitor their own environmental conditions—humidity, temperature, lighting control, etc.—and make changes based on occupancy or operational needs, either automatically or with remote human interaction. That’s hardly the end of it, though.

Factories that invest in IIoT technologies also enjoy the benefit of greater insight into their operational data. Connected material handling equipment can act as a governor for product throughput when it detects a slowdown or a bottleneck—on a conveyor belt moving products, for example.

IIoT devices also make maintenance efforts smarter and more proactive. Factory equipment is increasingly able to gauge its own performance and signal when maintenance is required, usually long before a total equipment failure that could leave your operation crippled.

Industry 4.0 is much bigger than these few examples. In fact, it stretches into each of the following technology areas, too, and provides a sort of central nervous system for other investments to work together.

The cloud

The Internet of Things is what gathers meaningful data, but the cloud is what grants that data mobility. First and foremost, cloud platforms facilitate data sharing, including across multiple production facilities, within departments under a single roof and between business partners.

Some of the terms you’ll hear used in conjunction with cloud computing include edge and fog computing. These are similar to one another, and they piggyback on the interconnected infrastructure made possible by the IIoT. Fog computing simply refers to a network architecture that is decentralized across many nodes, including IIoT devices. As the name suggests, edge computing moves the intelligence-gathering and analytical apparatus toward the edge of your operations and closer to the source of the data.

big data analytics
data analytics: laptop screen with different types of graphs

Big data and analytics

Stated simply, big data is the process of analyzing information gathered from a variety of sources. Industrial control systems and connected machinery are two potential sources. Others include customer relationship management software, enterprise planning platforms, and even data gleaned from web traffic, search engine results, social media, customer service interactions and more.

The ultimate goal of big data and analytics is to move toward making more decisions in or near real-time. Not surprisingly, 70 percent of the most successful distribution companies have some kind of analytical capabilities baked right into their enterprise planning systems.

Cybernetic Man

AI and autonomous robots

As we’ve seen already, most of these technologies are nested within one another like Russian matryoshka dolls. IIoT devices feed real-time information into the cloud. The cloud distributes this data to analytical platforms and wherever else it’s needed. Big data provides the means for multiple facilities, partners and even industries to engage in closer collaboration and information-sharing.

Artificial intelligence is helping smart manufacturers and factories bring together each of the aforementioned technologies and move us closer to a world without the burden of human error and unnecessary labor. As we speak, artificial intelligence is becoming indispensable for predicting customer behaviors, anticipating machine failures, automating inventory processes and raw material reorders, and much more.

The future holds even more potential. Generative design is emerging as a way to create ever-more-efficient product designs within certain fixed parameters. It works like this: A human engineer uses generative design software to specify qualities like material usage, desired tolerances of the final design and even cost requirements. Then, the AI within the program generates one or more physical designs that meet the desired criteria.

As AI comes of age before our eyes, we’re witnessing a proliferation of autonomous technologies, including robotics. Collaborative robots, also known as cobots, are an appealing bridge technology toward fully robotic factories. Cobots work alongside human workers and ease the burden of physically demanding processes.

In assembly plants, collaborative robots can lift and hold heavy objects, such as engine parts or automobile panels, while human workers perform work that requires finesses and dexterity, such as welding it in place.

In other factory environments, we can expect cobots to perform a larger share of inspection duties and other tasks that require considerable attention to detail and where errors can be costly.

AR and simulations

Augmented reality is a technology with vast potential in a variety of manufacturing-related fields. In fact, AR devices like Microsoft’s HoloLens and Google Glass are being targeted squarely at industrial movers and shakers who desire greater employee productivity, safety and accuracy.

In a manufacturing plant, AR headsets and goggles allow technicians and engineers to overlay schematics and assembly instructions directly overtop the real world. Consider an automobile at a certain stage of assembly. Assemblers equipped with AR can see detailed, “exploded” views of the car within their field of vision. Repair technicians can place manuals and detailed checklists in their peripheral vision to ensure they don’t miss any steps as they complete their work.

Augmented reality allows for incredibly detailed simulations that mirror the real world without the same risk of injury or equipment failure. Machine operators can verify calibration settings without risk of damaging the machine, and also cut down on startup time thanks to a reduction in real-world trial-and-error.

Additive manufacturing

Additive manufacturing, including 3D printing, has a long way to go before it’s scalable in the way previous-generation manufacturing techniques, like injection molding, are. Nevertheless, it’s quickly expanding from niche applications into what may be, in the near future, business as usual for manufacturers across the world.

One of the most appealing ways to put additive manufacturing to work involves rapid prototyping. Consider the benefits of using generative design and 3D printing to quickly produce and test products in the real world before ramping up production. Afterward, many 3D printer materials—known as filaments—used in prototyping can be recycled and used again.

Resins, nylons, polystyrene and plastics—such as ABS and PLA plastic—are some of the most common materials used in 3D printing today. However, industrial-scale printers can just as easily churn out replacement parts made from aluminum, steel and other metals, and with increasingly tight tolerances and elaborate designs. Even wood, stone and bamboo may be used in conjunction with eco-plastics as printer filaments for environmentally friendly products with undeniable tactile appeal.

Additive manufacturing is an ally to small-batch manufacturers first and foremost, but we’re inching closer to truly scalable printer models capable of combining the deposition of multiple materials into a single product. Very few complex products in the world today are fashioned from a single element, which means producing items like this at scale requires multiple machines. Having one device capable of depositing several materials to form a complex product is expected to be another game-changer in this already dynamic industry.

Horizontal and vertical systems integration

Ultimately, each of these areas of technological development serves the same goal: cross-company cohesion between departments and employee functions, and across multiple companies and supply-chain partners. Reaching this level of horizontal and vertical systems integration requires robust cyber-physical infrastructure. A true smart factory, for example, would likely need each of the following types of system integrations:

  • Incoming freight items, such as unfinished goods, are loaded from trucks onto automated rollers and pass under RFID scanners. These scanners automatically verify the count and send that information to an intelligent facility system. The system diverts the freight to wherever it’s needed — whether to temporary storage or directly to the assembly floor.
  • Multiple businesses working in unison within a shared supply chain can engage in systems integration to automate parts reordering and to sync their pickup and delivery schedules.
  • Multiple industrial systems come together in an emerging trend known as “digital twins.” Manufacturing companies live and die according to the leanness with which they conduct their operations, and that means having no more inventory on hand at a time than is necessary. Enterprise-planning software draws conclusions about future inventory levels based on past and current partner and customer data. Automated manufacturing systems call up digital schematics — digital twins — and send them to factory equipment. The computerized assembly and handling equipment then works until demand is met.

Vertical systems integration within factories, and horizontal systems integration across value-chain partners, are the inevitable future of manufacturing. This network of interconnected technology systems means cleaner, leaner and more efficient production. It also delivers significant savings in the form of lower error rates, as well as fewer transmission mistakes between departments and partners.

Achieving this future involves compatibility between industrial control systems and digital management platforms. This, in turn, requires collaboration between partners or the use of APIs. However, these are easy obstacles to overcome once the benefits are made plain to each party.

Cybersecurity in Industry 4.0

Of course, all this connectivity raises significant concerns about cybersecurity and will, in turn, yield new technologies designed to keep intellectual property, client information and operational data safe from prying eyes.

Several key points need to be addressed to keep advanced manufacturing infrastructure safe and secure. Performing identity verification and enforcing access control to factory networks and cyber-physical systems is a must. Reliable and encrypted communication between partners is essential for protecting data in transit. The data centers that store and analyze industrial information need to have robust digital and physical protection against would-be hackers, both on the premises and operating remotely.

Lest we forget, some of these technologies are still new enough that their security cannot be taken for granted. Even industrial-scale heating and cooling equipment, if it makes use of the IIoT for remote operation and diagnostics, is a potential point of failure — and a way into your critical systems for cybercriminals who know how to exploit them.

Building smart factories and engaging in greater collaboration all the way up and down the supply chain means vetting equipment, as well as hardware and software providers, very carefully. Major tech companies like Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, Cisco, GE and Oracle are staking their futures on providing connectivity solutions for the industrial internet of things and tomorrow’s industries. However, it’s ultimately up to facility managers, chief technology officers and CEOs to understand the underlying technologies well enough to make reasoned decisions when it comes to choosing their partners wisely.

Industry 4.0 will change the world

It’s right to think of these technologies as the beginning of another industrial revolution. Together, they represent a top-to-bottom reimagining of the entire manufacturing industry. Don’t write them off as futuristic, though — they’re already here and providing competitive advantages for companies that recognize their potential.


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