Gloria Spittel takes stock of the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Since the First Industrial Revolution when factory production began restructuring daily lives, manufacturing has benefitted from the pursuit of technological advancement, mechanisation and production in increased quantities for over a century.

The world has moved from mechanical to electrical, and from analogue to digital, over the span of the First, Second and Third Industrial Revolutions.

For instance, the Second Industrial Revolution’s use of electricity and assembly line manufacturing led to mass production. And socio-economically, it resulted in increased affordability of items produced in large batches. Operating within a drastically changing socio-political and economic environment, production methods and work processes including psychological phenomena such as the Hawthorne effect materialised.

Suddenly, manufacturing found itself operating in the Third Industrial Revolution, which was characterised by automation, digitisation and even robotics that came to replace human labour.

Now the Fourth Industrial Revolution is taking hold of manufacturing gradually across the world. Envisioned by the German government in a high-tech strategy document in 2013, the aim of Industry 4.0 is the full automation of manufacturing.

Apart from mass customisation – a feature of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – Industry 4.0 combines digital technologies, communication networks, robotics, artificial intelligence and reduced human input in manufacturing processeswhich could well be the defining characteristic of this era.

A key component of Industry 4.0 systems is the Internet of Things (IoT) – devices that are connected through a network (usually the internet) that enables the sending and receiving of data. What makes IoT fascinating are the endless possibilities for both work and play through the empowering of everyday devices into cyber-physical networked systems consisting of devices embedded with computers to monitor and control physical processes through a feedback loop.

Other characteristics of Industry 4.0 include the presence of cyber-physical systems with the ability to collect and transmit data, a secure network on which to ‘communicate,’ and the ability to analyse big data and make autonomous decisions. One system that has these characteristics is said to be a ‘smart factory.’ Unlike many devices, processes and systems that misguidedly use the word ‘smart’ to describe everything, the smart factory lives up to its name at least by definition.

The advantages of Industry 4.0 include operating in unsafe or hazardous environments or products without the assistance of humans, thereby removing the risks associated with the loss of human life while improving the health and safety of workers in dangerous environments.

Systems and factories operating in an Industry 4.0 environment will produce more in a shorter timeframe while working longer hours or around the clock, which is an advantage for time-sensitive industries such as shipping and freight. The ability to analyse large chunks of data that will assist organisations in decision-making is also an advantage.

Another plus point is the ability of businesses to manufacture to meet specific customer requirements, leading to the efficient mass customisation of products in batches as inexpensively as those that were mass manufactured in the 20th century.

Mass customisation could also take the form of large and complex updates of products that are similar to software updates, and range from simple cosmetic changes to the development of a completely new product.

However, as with all newly introduced systems and processes, there are inherent challenges and looming drawbacks of the Industry 4.0 era.

Firstly, although touted as globally applicable, it is difficult to imagine that emerging economies or developing nations would have the heavy infrastructure and trained manpower necessary for Industry 4.0 without substantial investments.

Regardless of the benefits of Industry 4.0 like the quick turnaround of production that increases competitiveness, investing in the required infrastructure would divert scarce funds from public expenditure such as healthcare and poverty alleviation programmes, causing socio-political issues in developing nations.

Striking a balance between infrastructure investment for Industry 4.0 and public expenditure is the first challenge for a developing nation. If this is not resolved, Industry 4.0 could shift work away from labour-intensive factory jobs in developing nations and further reduce competitiveness while increasing the wealth gap.

Secondly, a part of the infrastructure that’s required involves secure networks. This is an absolute necessity to prevent unauthorised access to production systems, industrial espionage or sabotage through hacking.

Among the other challenges and drawbacks, full automation of processes in factories in general is a worrying characteristic of Industry 4.0. The replacement of human labour for greater efficiency and more rapid production while desirable in certain industries could also lead to large-scale unemployment.

However, as with previous Industrial Revolutions, there is no stopping the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and there may not be sufficient cause to do so either.

What’s required is preparation for the influx of machines and restructuring of human labour.