Throughout history, there have been key changes to the manufacturing process that have increased productivity and improved efficiency. The initial industrial revolution occurred between 1820 and 1840; this saw the use of steam and water powered machinery in the factory, reducing the efforts of manual labour. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, the expansion of electricity, petroleum and steel ushered in the second industrial revolution, accompanied with the introduction of the mass production assembly line. It wasn’t until the 1980s when the third industrial revolution termed the ‘Digital Revolution’ began, incorporating computer software and the internet into the manufacturing process. Many industry experts predict we are on the verge of the fourth industrial revolution, termed Industry 4.0, which will add to the Digital Revolution through the development of automated processes and the incorporation of the Internet of Things (IoT). We investigate what Industry 4.0 entails and how it will revolutionise the manufacturing sector.
One of the keystones for Industry 4.0 is the development of ‘smart factories’, these will bring together current automation processes and data exchange to streamline manufacturing processes. The aim is to combine cyber and physical systems; these systems will be capable of autonomously exchanging information, generating actions and adapting processes as a connected network. Incorporating responsive robotics into the production line has a clear benefit in both the manufacturing and engineering sectors, the aim is to reduce the input needed from human operators. Many criticise the use of automation in manufacturing, claiming it will cut jobs for factory workers. However, with previous industrial revolutions, jobs lost will be replaced with new roles, it is predicted computer engineering and mathematics knowledge will be favourable qualities in Industry 4.0 workers.
For a factory system to be considered Industry 4.0, it must include the following features:
- Interoperability – systems must include humans, machines, devices and sensors that all communicate together to increase productivity.
- Information Transparency – to contextualise information, a system must use scanning technology to create a virtual copy of the physical world.
- Technical Assistance – the system must be able to assist humans in making decisions and complete tasks that are unsuitable or unsafe for human workers.
- Decentralised decision-making – a cyber-physical system must be able to make simple decisions, being as autonomous as possible.
It is predicted that the introduction of Industry 4.0 will come with its own set of problems, the first of which is the lack of trained workers who are able to integrate these systems into current factories. With little proven successful systems in place at the moment, stakeholders and investors are reluctant to support and invest in Industry 4.0 systems until they have proof of their success. Advancements in IT is also essential to improve data security; improved IT systems will also be required to protect proprietary production knowledge. Many worry that removing human input will risk the integrity of the production process, they also believe that the reliability and stability needed in the connected system may be hard to achieve. Finally, Industry 4.0 systems are not only expensive to install; they are expensive to fix, any technical issues with systems could shut down the production line, resulting in expensive production outages.
Despite the concerns surrounding Industry 4.0 systems, it is clear to see there are many advantages to implementing cyber-physical systems. Reducing the need for human input in dangerous working environments can help improve the health and safety of workers, helping to decrease work-related accidents. Productivity can not only be made more efficient, but it can also maintain consistency at a higher output rate, resulting in more product in the same amount of time for manufacturers. The industry is starting to adapt to the fourth industrial revolution, with Cincinnati, Ohio deeming itself the ‘Industry 4.0 demonstration city’, encouraging education and innovation into Industry 4.0 technology. With new technologies constantly improving the manufacturing process, Industry 4.0 is inevitable; the real question is when will Industry 4.0 arrive?
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