Follow the yellow brick road to Industry 4.0

Paul Boughton

Industry 4.0 is this year’s automation industry buzzword, says Jonathan Wilkins

Launched by Siemens at the Hanover Messe two years ago, the concept refers to the computerisation of traditional industries like manufacturing and predicts a transition to intelligent factories. The final report on Industry 4.0 was released at the Hannover event in April this year.

Why is it called 4.0, you ask? The concept refers to a fourth industrial revolution, which it argues we are on the verge of. To step back in history a moment, the person who is regarded as the father of the first industrial revolution is James Watt. His improvements to the steam engine in the 18th century played an important role in developing steam and water-powered mechanical machines for factories.

The second revolution was marked by the introduction of electricity in assembly lines by a character called Henry Ford. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Finally, the third industrial revolution came at around the same time as disco music and marked the introduction of computers and other IT to the factory floor.

In Industry 4.0, strong emphasis is placed on the role of intelligent factories. They are energy efficient organisations based around high-tech, adaptable and ergonomic production lines. Smart factories aim to integrate customers and business partners and can easily mass-assemble customised products.

Like the Scarecrow from Wizard of Oz who, at the end of the story, gets a working brain, factory equipment and products will soon have even more advanced built-in intelligence. This means that machines will no longer work separately and “blindfolded,” but rather the product will be able to tell the machine what to do. 

The sophisticated software implanted in factory equipment will help machines self-regulate and make more autonomous decisions. Decentralisation also means that tasks currently performed by a central master computer will be taken over by components.

So what does all of this mean to your everyday industrial automation company? It would depend where it’s situated. In Germany and the US, governments have already allocated funds for strategic research and the implementation of Industry 4.0. Germany has dedicated €200 million for projects like BMBF’s it’s OWL or RES-COM. Similarly, the USA has launched several initiatives like the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition.

In other countries, like the UK, there’s also a lot of enthusiasm about the subject.  Manufacturers and trade bodies like GAMBICA and the CLPA, have already endorsement of the trend. Although no major official initiatives have been made public yet, there is definitely strong support for a move in the general direction of Industry 4.0.

The great news is that a lot of the technology associated with Industry 4.0 already exists. The not so great news is that implementing it will probably cost your company a pretty penny, especially if you aim to be an early adaptor. 

For most automation companies, the move will be a gradual one, an evolution rather than a revolution. This is why continuity with older systems will still be essential to manufacturing in the years to come. And here’s where European Automation can come in handy! With a global network of automation parts suppliers, we can help our customers and prospects with a smooth transition to the next stage of industry by providing old and obsolete, but also new generation, automation parts.  

We don’t know how other suppliers behave, but here at European Automation, we always get excited about new trends and innovative concepts. We’re unlikely to wake up one morning and realise we’re not in Kansas anymore, and instead in a land of intelligent factories, where machines govern themselves. But we sure are looking forward to embarking on the Industry 4.0 journey over the next years.

Jonathan Wilkins is with industrial automation spare parts specialist European Automation.