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Indutstry 4.0: What's in a name?

Indutstry 4.0: What's in a name?

Steve Sands of Festo GB, assesses if the phrase 'Indusry 4.0' will start to impact on our everyday working lives any time soon.


We all love our buzz words, industry phrases and acronyms don't we? There's comfort to be had in discussing a problem with a set of colleagues and the conversation being peppered with three letter acronyms. Engineering as a discipline has more than enough 'industry speak' to rival any sector (save perhaps IT which is a sector so jargon heavy it's very name is jargon) and a phrase which is being used with increasing regularity is 'Industry 4.0'. Indeed, the Hannover Fair in Germany last year had 'Industry 4.0' as one of its major themes.

The term 'Industry 4.0 is to my mind inextricably linked with another well-used but little understood phrase 'the Internet of Things'. It is believed that in the future machines will communicate with one another and thus herald a fourth industrial revolution. This communication will take place ostensibly via the internet, and cyber physical production systems will revolutionise conventional manufacturing logic as individual workpieces will 'work out' which services they require from a plant. This new architecture for production can be implemented gradually through the digital upgrading of existing facilities - which means that the concept can be realised by upgrading existing sites and not just in newly built facilities.

In truth this fourth industrial revolution is more of an evolution, as in industry currently we are already seeing many signs of the change from rigid industrial control to decentralised intelligence. Vast numbers of sensors are recording their environment with incredible precision and are enabling local controllers to make their own decisions in embedded processor systems, independent of a central production control system.

This vast number of sensors is part of the 'Internet of Things' and futurologists believe that there will soon be more 'things' (printers, photocopiers, lathes, robots, work piece handling systems) on the internet than people. A largely unnoticed milestone in this development was seen in June 2012 when a switch to Internet Protocol Version 6 increased the number of available IP addresses from 4.3 billion to 340 sextillion (that's 340 plus 36 zeros). This development will allow mobile phones, computers, cars, transport containers and even items of clothes to have their own IP address. Indeed Hans Vestberg, CEO of Ericsson believes that by 2020 up to 50 billion devices will be networked.

So it's happening, but why does industrial production need such a high degree of networking of intelligent machines? In today's factories, huge volumes of data are being produced by an ever increasing number of measuring points. These are handled easily by machines, but humans can no longer process them at the same pace. It is therefore useful if machines can communicate with one another in certain areas of production. Many processes can be made more efficient, flexible and cost effective by creating instrumented environments. Extremely small, low cost wireless sensors are distributed throughout a production plant, allowing objects to register their environment and communicate wirelessly. Several different types of technical sensor, such as opto-electrical sensors, pressure, temperature and infrared sensors, work together to create an overall picture of the situation, sensing what is currently happening in their environment.

In the world of 'Industry 4.0', products and production facilities will become active system components, controlling their own production and logistics. They will contain cyber-physical systems that link the cyberspace of the Internet with the real physical world. However, they are different from current mechatronic systems as they have the ability to interact with their environment, plan and adapt their own behaviour to suit the demand and their environment and learn new behavioural patterns and strategies and thus be self-optimising. Optimised production means reduced waste,  and being lean and efficient - using or wasting the minimum of resources. They allow even the smallest of batches to be optimised with rapid product changes and a large number of variants to be produced efficiently. Embedded sensor/actuator components, machine-to-machine communication and active semantic product memories are giving rise to new optimisation methods in order to conserve resources in industrial environments. This will facilitate environmentally friendly and sophisticated production at a reasonable cost in the future.

The big advantage of Industry 4.0 is that it can be implemented gradually. With cyber-physical systems, you can convert a factory while it is in operation. This involves integrating sensors as required, fitting system components with miniature servers and replacing the bus system. This means that you can start with individual machines and then extend to convert the entire plant. The much talked about "fourth industrial revolution" is actually machine evolution. There is no Factory 4.0 yet in commercial operation, but research and industry partners are working hard to make it a reality.

There are some exciting projects underway to test the feasibility of Industry 4.0 principles and within five years we will see commercial applications evolving. Things are moving faster in the area of the conversion of existing plants where it can be assumed that the first plants will be operating according to some cyber-physical production principles in two to three years' time.

So while 'Industry 4.0' and 'the Internet of Things' continue to be topics for debate at industry seminars and events there really is very little about them that should leave us frozen with concern that we won't 'get' them and therefore be confined to the scrapheap for not being able to 'keep up'. As engineers our working environments change every day; in many instances this is because we have implemented that change. Let's not shy away from these changes just because they have a fancy name.
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