| Written by Dr. Urban Siller

Following the great industrial revolutions of mechanisation, mass production and automation, the advanced economies are now deep into a fourth industrial revolution, the digital transformation era. Widely known as Industry 4.0, it's impact can be seen in the ever-closer digital and physical integration.
Digital Transformation Era

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Four big technology trends are affecting how and where manufacturing—and much else besides—takes place: artificial intelligence, cloud computing, in-space manufacturing, and the circular economy (OK, the last one isn’t strictly a technology trend, but let’s not worry about that for the moment).

In this article I want to take a brief look at how humans and machines have become more connected in Industry 4.0 and how we have already entered a fifth industrial revolution, before picking up some of the issues from two of the four trends in particular; in-space manufacturing and the circular economy (see also: the digital transformation stages).

If you are working in any kind of manufacturing and distribution, I’m sure you share my ambition to create systems and processes that are smarter, more efficient and, therefore, less wasteful (digital transformation for manufacturing). By the way, smarter systems don’t always need to be the most cutting-edge. Sometimes, what works is what’s best. Of course, the reason we want to reduce waste is to sustain profit and growth. But we also need to understand the impact of how we do that. So, I’ll end with some thoughts about the need to avoid what would be the greatest waste of all – the waste of our planet.


Digital Transformation Era: Get ready for the next industrial revolution

Klaus Schwab, Chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), wrote about the arrival of a fourth industrial revolution in his 2015 article, and Industry 4.0 became the theme for WEF’s Davos conference the following year (1). German technology strategists had been using the term for a few years, and the Davos event brought it to a global audience. In his article, Schwab highlighted the “velocity, scope and systems impact” that makes Industry 4.0 a step-change from before. But from our perspective in 2021, confronted by the vast and uncertain effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the speed of change in Industry 4.0 starts to look a little quaint.

The global response to the pandemic accelerated many existing trends and pushed some into overdrive. As marketing expert Scott Galloway (2) points out, it took Apple computers 42 years to reach a one trillion dollar valuation. Yet between March and August 2020, Apple’s value rocketed from $1 trillion to $2 trillion. During those same 20 weeks, Tesla became the world’s most valuable automotive firm, with a market capitalization greater than that of Toyota, Volkswagen, Daimler, and Honda but greater than all of them combined. That kind of market action reminds me of the ‘irrational exuberance’ of the dot com boom just over twenty years ago. But then again, the internet did change everything.

Today, we look for long-term value creation in Industry 4.0’s transformation of manufacturing, particularly through the rise of the smart factory (read: the digital transformation needs). Several important variables need to be in play to allow both the emergent and the smart aspects of Industry 4.0 to appear. Data-driven automation provides the bedrock of the smart factory. Along with the rapid adoption of networked machine-to-machine communication, it has enabled important innovations such as the use of autonomous robots in production processes.

Sophisticated data analysis offers smart factories better problem management through real-time decision making and accurate predictive maintenance. Prevention is better than cure for machines, as much as it is for people. And it’s from the convergence of people with machines and processes that we start to see entirely new properties emerging.

But before we turn to cyber-physical systems and the advances in technology that have made them possible, it’s worth taking a moment to recall the roots of cybernetics in human relations. After all, that’s why Norbert Wiener called his famous cybernetics book The Human Use of Human Beings. In January 2021, the European Commission published a research and innovation paper calling for a fifth industrial revolution based on an approach to Industry 4.0 that will align its technological capabilities with a “sustainable, human-centric and resilient” agenda (continue with this hot topic: the digital transformation challenges).

In other words, the next industrial revolution has already arrived. We have entered the world of Industry 5.0. The paper’s authors refer to the famous image of Charlie Chaplin from his masterpiece Modern Times, made in 1936 during the mass production era of Industry 2.0. Here, we see the unhappy human worker trapped between the giant cogs of the machine he is there to serve. For the Commission, the promise of Industry 5.0 is that it will continue to focus on innovation while at the same time creating social change “beyond jobs and growth”.


Digital Transformation Era: Digital Innovations, Human Systems

Industry 5.0 has a very different view of the relationship between humans and machines than Charlie Chaplin did. When it comes to digital technologies, we want to work with them, not on them – and certainly not for them. This is partly what lies behind the approach known as cyber-physical systems. Cyber-physical systems come from the rapid spread of technologies such as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), intelligent sensors and contactless identification technologies. Building connections between these digital entities and the physical world in which they operate allows people, machines and systems to be integrated via distributed, real-time information.

For example, RFID technology is used for the identification and localisation of objects in smart factories. Tiny, reusable tags sensitive to electromagnetic radio waves are embedded in objects, allowing them to be tracked by sensors that feed data to hand-held readers and monitoring stations. Sensors play a big part in the smart factory and are crucial to Industry 4.0’s overall capabilities. In addition to tracking objects with RFID, sensors can connect stand-alone machines to real-time functional and contextual monitoring. Cyber-physical systems are well-established across industries, as well as in government sectors, and this has led to high expectations of what they can achieve. This is particularly true in manufacturing and production. The combination of remote diagnosis, self-organising capabilities and real-time control not only drives improvements to existing processes but also enables new manufacturing models.

While this might appear to be mostly about machines monitoring and intervening in the functioning of other machines, these systems are really human-centric. People can easily interact with cyber-physical systems through everyday mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, and augmented reality (AR) technology is increasingly built into the installation, operation and maintenance of cyber-physical system components. The use of AR wearable devices, such as head-mounted smart displays like Google Glass, supports both improved productivity and better training for people. This makes it possible for them to transfer from site to site in distributed manufacturing facilities without loss of operational continuity.


Digital Transformation Era: The Great Disrupters

However, in the broader picture of Industry 4.0 – or even Industry 5.0 – we have to manage the risks of being disrupted by the four big trends mentioned in the introduction while dealing with the potential for them to be disrupted by unintended consequences. Artificial intelligence is discussed a lot these days, along with the cloud-based systems that provide servers, databases, networking, software and analytics from anywhere, to anywhere. Here, I want to focus on new space-age manufacturing opportunities that will soon be commercially viable, and on the need to create sustainable cycles in industry.
It may sound like science fiction, but off-world manufacturing is now a serious prospect. NASA has a dedicated in-space manufacturing project, complete with its own cool logo bearing the motto ‘Make it – Don’t take it’. While their initial objective was on-demand manufacturing for long space missions, NASA is now working alongside private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin on commercial manufacturing in low and zero-gravity conditions that can reduce costs and promote innovation.
3-D printing has shown particular promise in space. NASA has been carrying out detailed studies of the impact of zero-G conditions on fused deposition modelling since 2014. In addition to manufacturing without gravity, NASA is exploring new materials and new combinations of existing materials, with at least one eye on potential extractive metallurgy on the Moon as part of their plan to build a permanent Moon base within the next decade. One of NASA’s commercial partners, the aptly named Made In Space Inc., is setting its sights even further by developing 3-D printed habitats that, they claim, could help bring about Elon Musk’s ‘stretch’ goal of putting one million humans on Mars by 2050 (3). When we talk about ‘design anywhere, make anywhere’ smart factories - we clearly need to be thinking beyond international sites to interplanetary and, who knows, maybe even intergalactic sites!

All this space activity sounds exciting, but it is also dangerous. As Musk himself anticipates, “a bunch of people will probably die” in the process of realising his dream. And there are more immediate threats from the increasing quantity of human-made objects in space. Setting aside the possibility that space will become another theatre of war for humans, there is the problem of ‘space junk’, material that has either been discarded or become faulty in orbit, returning to Earth with unpredictable consequences. This was a real fear recently, with part of a Chinese rocket launched in April 2021 making an ‘uncontrolled’ re-entry as it returned to the surface. The probability was always that it would fall into the sea, given that the Earth is 71% covered by water, and that is what eventually happened. But there was at least a chance it could hit an inhabited land area. That, as US astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said in something of an understatement, is “potentially not good”. To be fair to Musk and SpaceX, one of their most remarkable innovations to date is the reusable rocket, starting with the Falcon 9 in 2014 and continuing with the ambitious Starship SN15. But even if we can return used rocket boosters to the launch pad to be filled up and fired again, there is much more to do if we want the Earth to remain a viable home for us. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have inspired a new urgency about sustainability in manufacturing, even if it hasn’t taken off in quite the same way as Tesla’s market cap. Methods to improve industrial sustainability are not new, and there is no shortage of goodwill. But it is actions that count.

At Identec Solutions, we are very proud to have been granted the Ecoprofit Certificate every year since 2012. This reflects our commitment to sustainable industry as well as our belief that reducing waste is good not only for productivity and profit, but also for people and planet. We talk about defeating Muda, the Japanese concept of ‘wastefulness’ adopted by the Toyota Production System as an umbrella term for seven non-value creating activities in production. It’s our mission to help our customers do the same. programme.

But we know that defeating Muda is a never-ending task, for every business and for the planet as a whole. UK-based researchers Anne Velenturf and Phil Purnell (4) write that “more than 100 billion tonnes of materials entered the global economy in 2017”. At the same time, 99% of what consumers buy “is discarded within six months of purchasing without the material being recovered”. This is indicative of a linear ‘design-produce-sell-use-scrap’ model, which is self-evidently unsustainable. A circular economy, as the name suggests, moves away from this and towards a model based on a renewable product cycle. For industry, this means reducing waste in manufacturing processes and logistics, as well as rethinking post-sales repair and re-use. This would not only benefit the environment but also give manufacturers and suppliers cost savings, regulatory and reputational benefits, enhanced employee engagement and resilience against both traditional competitive challenges and unforeseen future shocks.

However, there is a lack of recognised indicators for circular economy concepts, and that tends to inhibit practical applications. But by using the same smart factory assets that we’ve covered here, we could drive better design and assessment of circular economy initiatives. And we need to look to the circular economy if we are to sustain our Industry 4.0 inventiveness in the Industry 5.0 era. As I’ve written elsewhere (Brownfields, Industrial Automation and Global Pandemic), for many years, the preferred strategy in mass production was to implement the greatest degree of automation possible, with the aim of becoming a ‘lights-out’ plant requiring no human presence on-site. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing climate emergency present a risk of the whole Earth becoming a ‘lights-out’ planet supporting no human presence whatsoever.


Digital Transformation Era:


That really would be the Mother of all Muda, to waste this ‘pale blue dot’, as renowned astronomer Carl Sagan called Earth when we know we have the means to sustain profits, people and the planet. The question is, do we have the will? Of course, there is no single solution. We need the cloud, we need to explore space, we need fair and explainable AI, we need circular economy thinking, and more. But there are steps that each of us can take to help steer all of us along a better path.

Digital Transformation Era: Industry 5.0 versus Muda

Delve deeper into one of our core topics:  Digital Transformation




Dr. Urban Siller, CEO

Urban Siller is the CEO of IDENTEC SOLUTIONS, holding a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and a Master in Business Administration. Urban managed companies in the Supply Chain, Medical Device and Industrial Automation sectors for more than 25 years. His passion is to design innovative products & solutions that bring measurable benefits to customers. What makes his day is to experience how customers are using 'his' products & solutions, already thinking about new ways to serve them even better.



(1) https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond/
(2) https://www.irishtimes.com/business/technology/after-covid-how-firms-can-make-the-most-of-their-post-pandemic-opportunities-1.4438604
(3) https://observer.com/2020/10/3d-printing-international-space-station-made-in-space-interview/
(4) https://theconversation.com/what-a-sustainable-circular-economy-would-look-like-133808