Today, manufacturing is on the cusp of yet another industrial revolution, one that promises remarkable increases productivity with an even smaller, smarter, and more adaptable workforce.

This next great transformation is called Industry 4.0. Originally introduced in 2011 by a German government-sponsored working group, Industry 4.0 is a general term that describes the use of several rapidly evolving technologies and processes, such as the Internet of Things, advanced robotics, Big Data/Analytics, and cloud computing, to increase productivity and eventually create value in new and different ways.

The fourth industrial revolution

The number 4.0 is a nod to three previous technology-driven transformations in manufacturing: the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century when steam engines, innovative machinery, and the factory system replaced hand tools and small workshops; the advent of electricity, the assembly line, and mass production between 1870 and 1914; and the digital revolution when advances in computing and robotics allowed for the automation of production.

In our current Industry 3.0 phase, computers are used to create designs and formulate instructions that are then relayed to machines that usually focus on a single, high speed operation. In Industry 4.0, machines will be more autonomous, capable of changing their production patterns based on real-time inputs without sacrificing efficiency. These smart, internet-connected machines will interact with all of the other machines and humans in the value chain, from suppliers to customers. The constant stream of data coming in from different parts of this network will allow a company and its stakeholders to make better use of capital, raw materials and human resources.

In Industry 4.0, machines will be more autonomous, capable of changing their production patterns based on real-time inputs without sacrificing efficiency.

For example, when a customer uses an automaker’s online customization tool to select the features of a new car, the vehicle’s configuration is immediately sent to the factory and its suppliers so that the factory can allocate staff and machines and the supplier can send out the right components. On the shop floor, RFID tags allow the vehicle’s chassis and components to guide themselves through the assembly process, ensuring that the correct part is available at the right time. Moreover, the factory’s tools and robots are always collecting data. This cloud-based information is used to predict when servicing or repair will be needed before a machine malfunctions, as well as to identify ways to improve the manufacturing process. 

A glimpse into the future

Truly “smart factories” like these are still a few years away, but you can see it taking shape in welding. Some welding robots can recognize which components are connected to them and warn of incompatibilities. There are also welding management systems that can wirelessly notify the foreman if someone is welding outside WPS parameters, ensure that only qualified welders can operate a machine, compare process performance data to relevant standards.

The concepts and technologies that encompass Industry 4.0 are still evolving, but one thing is clear: Automation will soon eliminate most of manufacturing’s repetitive and dangerous tasks. Tomorrow’s manufacturers will need workers with high-level problem-solving skills and technological know-how.  Given the relentless pace of technological innovation, workers will have to dedicate more of their time to professional development. In fact, learning new skills will soon be a manufacturing worker’s most important ability.