Industy 4.0: The term we love to hate

Jon Lawson

Industry 4.0 has become a phrase we love to hate. Used to describe everything from modular automation to cloud computing, the term has come to mean different things to different people. Here, Jonathan Wilkins from EU Automation explains why, despite the differences, Industry 4.0 symbolises a wider shift towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

When the phrase Industry 4.0 was first coined at a press conference at Hannover Fair in 2011, few realised the lasting impact it would have on industry as we know it. Not only did it set into motion a series of Government initiatives in Germany, in the form of the Plattform Industrie 4.0, it also spurred the rest of the world to take action.
The UK for example, launched its industrial strategy focused on pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence and renewable energy. The strategy will see investment in many new areas of technology, including a promised £400m investment in electric vehicle charging infrastructure and £176m in 5G mobile connectivity.
Elsewhere, the US has already used digitalisation to help itself get out of a two-decade-long decline in its manufacturing sector — a period marred by millions of job losses. The Manufacturing USA programme has introduced technology institutes that are breaking ground in the research and commercialisation of technologies such as clean energy, materials and composites, semiconductors, and flexible hybrid electronics.
A fragmented industry

Despite the speed of digitalisation in some countries, others are still in their infancy. For example, Italy only launched an official initiative in the last few years and is yet to attract the necessary funding. Similarly, while France has made good progress in the development of autonomous, energy-harvesting sensors, it must overcome its technology skills gap before it can create a truly prosperous digital industry.
What these challenges show is the diverse range of journeys that different countries are taking to digitalise. If not addressed, the resulting fragmentation between nations may lead to the stunted growth of change initiatives around the world. To tackle this, truly decisive leadership is necessary to provide a co-ordinated approach.
Part of the reason for this fragmentation is that successive Industrial Revolutions are getting shorter in duration. Where the First Industrial Revolution, which used steam power, lasted around 80 years, the Second, which was responsible for mass production, lasted around 44. The Third, which is commonly known as the information age, lasted around 31 years.
To shed light on this, and to give engineers and business leaders unique insights into digitalisation trends and forecasts, we’ve recently published our second book, 4.0 Sight: Digital industry around the world. It's here.
The book not only covers the latest trends in automation, it explores the big nine technologies changing industry as we know it. We’ve also conducted interviews with leading experts from companies including ABB, Toshiba Machine, Renishaw and GE and provided our industry predictions for the years ahead.