The concept of the fourth industrial revolution was first introduced in Hannover earlier in this decade. This followed several decades of industrial automation, albeit at lower levels of functionality and complexity. Many developments have since shaped several industry 4.0 technologies that were previously under the purview of researchers. This is possible today, mainly due to innovations in technology, software, and hardware. Already, the increasing human-machine, machine-machine, and human-human connectivity influence production systems and processes across the world. Industry 4.0 trends and technologies are fundamental in achieving connected manufacturing geared towards smart and autonomous factories.
From advanced robotics in R&D labs to computer vision in warehouses, technology is making an impact on every step of the manufacturing process. Lights-out manufacturing refers to factories that operate autonomously and require no human presence. These robot-run settings often don't even require lighting, and can consist of several machines functioning in the dark. While this may sound futuristic, these types of factories have been a reality for more than 15 years. Famously, the Japanese robotics maker FANUC has been operating a "lights-out" factory since 2001, where robots are building other robots completely unsupervised for nearly a month at a time. "Not only is it lights-out," said FANUC VP Gary Zywiol, "we turn off the air conditioning and heat too." To imagine a world where robots do all the physical work, one simply needs to look at the most ambitious and technology-laden factories of today. For example, the Dongguan City, China-based phone part maker Changying Precision Technology Company has created an unmanned factory. Everything in the factory -- from machining equipment to unmanned transport trucks to warehouse equipment -- is operated by computer-controlled robots. The technical staff monitors activity of these machines through a central control system. Where it once required about 650 workers to keep the factory running, robot arms have cut Changying's human workforce to less than a tenth of that, down to just 60 workers. A general manager for the company said that it aims to reduce that number to 20 in the future. As industrial technology grows increasingly pervasive, this wave of automation and digitization is being labelled "Industry 4.0," as in the fourth industrial revolution. So, what does the future of factories hold? Manufacturers predict overall efficiency to grow annually over the next five years at 7x the rate of growth seen since 1990.
Manufacturing companies can feel product cycles tightening around them. In our fast-paced world, consumers are tossing out devices with rapid regularity, calling for the newest gadget, the hottest feature, the most instantaneous service. But how will manufacturing companies keep pace with this growing demand while continuing to produce increasingly complex goods? Smart Manufacturing, Industry 4.0, the Digital Enterprise, Factory of the Future or whatever you choose to call it, is revolutionizing the industry as we know it. Unlike the first industrial revolution of steam and iron (remember when hot water was a nifty tool?), this industrial revolution is splicing computing power and machine technologies to fuel a better, more efficient workplace that harnesses the abilities of modern informational, operational and communication technologies.
The industrial world has been in the throes of digitization for well over a decade. Primarily through enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution systems (MES), critical planning, scheduling, warehousing, inventory management, and logistics processes have been automated and simplified. But these gains have been restricted to technology silos, supporting separate functions of the factory rather than improving the performance of the plant -- and its extended supply chain -- in a broader way. Those days may finally be in the past, as manufacturers now have a golden opportunity to take advantage of digitization's promised outsized benefits. The advent of complex smart sensors, artificial intelligence, big data pools, and robotics, combined with the vast connections of the cloud, is heralding a new era for manufacturers, marked by totally integrated factories that can rapidly tailor products to individual customer needs and respond instantly to shifting demands and trends.
With the rapid pace of technological innovation, the need for greater market responsiveness, and the rising cost of labor in nearly all economies, many companies are revisiting age-old manufacturing strategies. They recognize there is a growing need to introduce innovative products faster to meet customer demands while maintaining aggressive cost and quality objectives. Traditional manufacturing approaches can no longer keep pace with this dynamic new consumer-driven age. Meeting these demands will instead require a complete reinvention to how we approach manufacturing, and this reinvention will need to unfold on a scale that amounts to a new industrial revolution. Welcome to the era of digital manufacturing, which can be defined simply as the growing application and impact of digital connectivity linking automation, workers and decision-makers.