Industry 4.0 – How COVID Accelerated It

Future of Industry

Industrial revolutions, by their very definitions, are radical breakthroughs that turn existing systems on their heads. The First Industrial Revolution used steam and water for production; the second brought in electric power (leading to mass production); the third heralded in the age of information technology and electronics – which led to the automation of production.

Major Industrial Stages. Source: Standard, What They Think

The fourth industrial revolution, beginning in the twenty-first century, pushes the limits of the third revolution even further. Also known as Industry 4.0, it encapsulates the influence of artificial intelligence, Internet of Things and automation on the physical reality of humans and is “characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres”, as described by Klaus Schwab – Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum. The use of such technology facilitates the effective streamlining of industrial processes.

Industry 4.0 Pre-COVID - Alexa, what was happening?

Buzz around automation and its applications for the way industries function emerged only in recent years, when there was large sale acknowledgement of the fact that our world is moving to a more dyanmic future. With the Fourth industrial revolution moving at an exponential pace, the adoption of such practices promised to be nothing short of disruptive. They were going to change the world as we knew it, forever.

At the onset, several companies invested in these technologies, some on a large scale and others on a smaller one. Even then, change was slow to come. Most of these investments remained in pilot pergutory, where the new technology is tested for extended periods of time before its viability is determined. Only if the pilot were to yield positive results, would companies scale up the use of these technologies.

In 2018, McKinsey and Company collaborated with the World Economic Forum to assess the globally situated “production lighthouses”—those sites which showed the most advanced use of these technologies. They found that these innovations were used to increase security by regulating entry into buildings, for faster communication, switching to digital mediums to display metrics, and monitor machinery digitally. Likely points of failure were determined, while production machines were actually allowed to learn from their mistakes.

Though over the course of the past few years, it has been apparent that these innovations will become a vital part of how our businesses function, however, the pace at which this transition would take place remained largely unclear until the COVID’19 crisis.

Error: Virus Detected

The uncertain environment brought by the spread of coronavirus has created a perfect impetus for innovation. The creation of cyber-physical systems (CPS) means that we now have the capability to store data in a sophisticated manner and regulate automated processes without being physically present.

Companies around the globe are finding ways to reduce dependency on human labour: which is exactly the goal achieved by dark factories, smart factories and the IIoT. Dark factories or lights out manufacturing are the epitome of current innovation, where completely automated processes take place without any human physically present on the factory premises. In smart factories, however, humans and machinery operate side by side. While the labour force required is significantly reduced, there still needs to be human oversight for production processes.

The above existence of the above systems is made possible due to several elements of sophisticated technology, that include:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Blockchain Manufacturing
  • Industrial Internet of Things
  • Condition Monitoring
  • Robotics
  • Cyber Security
  • 3-D Printing
  • Quantum Computing
  • Nanotechnology

What’s important to note is that companies were on this path already – COVID just accelerated it. Pre crisis, the changes were more calculated and cautious, with long gestation periods. Now, driven by necessity, manufacturing units are tranforming within the span of months—each aiming to be as resilient as possible. This is also an opportunity for businesses to improve their functionality and services.

Over the year, COVID’19 has transformed manufacturing processes in a multitude of ways. Even when humans are stuck at home, machines are not, and can continue producing output uninterrupted. Less people on the factory floor translates into lower chances of infection, and it is easier to maintain social distancing norms. Industry 4.0 has also played its part in directly tackling the virus. For instance, in China, thermal drones are being used to scan for citizens with fever. Smartphone apps, that have been introduced by several countries globally, help mass data as people track their symptoms. These innovations are also being utilised to make the mass-production of PPE gear more efficient.

Manufacturers now also have access to larger blockchain networks, creating a larger network for inputs and finished goods. Creation of more complex IIoT networks has enabled several manufacturers to detect and prevent assembly line failures, and using video monitoring, Virtual and Augmented Reality tools can go a long way in enabling workers to carry out functions remotely. Robots can now serve the needs of organisations of all sizes, like the ones used by Amazon warehouses: to enable better use of floor space, and quickly and safely move goods around.

Extending to the workplace

In many ways, an office resembles a factory: you need to collaborate with colleagues to attain a certain outcome. It is arguably easier to digitize the operations of an office—yet until necessity struck, people chose to work in a physical workplace. But with that rapidly changing, Industry 4.0 presents several opportunities to create digitized global workflow, and eliminate the need for a common physical space.

Hence, we see that the crisis is not really changing things, rather just hastening processes that were an inevitable part of our future. The earlier businesses adapt to new technologies, the better they will be able to perform and even survive the crisis (this and future ones to come). The pandemic has compelled us to accept and implement changes faster. It has not altered the future, but simply brought it to us sooner.

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