In the fourth industrial revolution (also known as Industry 4.0), smart factories will be able to reconfigure themselves in response to changes in demand; industrial scale USB ports will control thousands of sensors and computer-enabled devices in a plant, enabling them to change to different tasks and modules in an instant.
This is the vision of Professor Detlef Zühlke at the German Artificial Intelligence Research Centre (DFKID) in Kaiserslautern, south-west Germany. He has created a pioneering model factory to demonstrate the new capabilities of connected computing, building on the ability of a computer to recognise new devices that are added into a system – just as a PC can recognize a printer when it is connected.
The concept of a fourth industrial revolution, building on those which centered around steam power, electricity and then IT, is that the Internet of Things (IoT) will transform society and industry in the coming years. It gained traction during the Davos World Economic Forum in January 2016 and several national governments are now investing heavily in prototype operations which harness IoT advances.
Among the anticipated shifts will be more manufacturing in developed economies, such as Germany, the UK and the US, as the cost of labor becomes less of an obstacle due to smart technology. ‘If cheap labour isn’t cheap any more, companies will stop manufacturing in China,’ Professor Zühlke predicts. Factories will spring up closer to their customers, with manufacturing instructions transmitted electronically to these automated facilities.
According to product manager Lars Mohr Jensen, writing in Logistics Business IT publication, this will lead to ‘production cost reduction, faster time-to-market, mass production of individually-configured products and last minute changes to any order.’
Many new protocols and regulations will be needed to administer and govern this new manufacturing environment. Yet it promises to deliver extraordinary new opportunities, both to manufacturers and customers, as a new era of physical distribution and industrial production dawns.