With current geopolitical events and lingering challenges presented by the pandemic, it’s easy to forget that we are in the throes of one of the most significant industrial revolutions in human history. The Fourth Industrial Revolution (or Industry 4.0 for short) is completely reshaping how companies conduct business in a range of sectors, from transport and logistics right through to manufacturing and production.
As the advent of the steam engine and the computer have permanently altered industry, the introduction of the internet of things (IoT) and closely-related technology will help millions of businesses achieve industrial automation – a state in which operational machines, digital infrastructure, and information technology all work together seamlessly in real-time.
So, what does Industry 4.0 mean, and how does it fit in with the broader context of digital transformation?
Why is Industry 4.0 so Significant?
This popular term refers to the simultaneous convergence of several developmental technologies that will completely revolutionize almost all sectors of the economy. The changes underway will primarily rest upon the shoulders of industrial internet of things (IIoT) technologies, facilitating machine-to-machine communication and breaking down the barriers between information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT).
Several supporting emergent technologies such as 3D printing, big data analytics (powered by artificial intelligence [AI]), edge cloud computing, automation, and robotics (to name but a few), will help tie everything together and deliver a version of industry unrecognizable from today’s systems.
This synchronized, ultra-connected environment is known as industrial automation. While some of these technologies have been around for several years, never before has the meshing of operational and informational technology been so straightforward.
Limitations in network speeds, memory size, power consumption, computing time, cost, and other factors no longer constrain the design of automation systems. Consequently, industrial, operational, and business architectures can all – for the first time in human history – become seamlessly blended in a symbiotic and entirely automated ecosystem.
How Does Industrial Automation Work?
As mentioned, industrial automation is achieved by blending various technologies to create “smart” production, supply chains, and allocation of resources (more on this later).
In industrial settings, IIoT sensors will help physical elements such as machinery talk to each other and provide real-time performance data. For instance, physical items such as devices, robots, machinery, equipment, products will use sensors or RFID tags to provide real-time data about their condition, performance, or location.
With all elements of a product’s lifecycle now trackable in real-time, industrial automation technology will allow companies to run smoother supply chains, rapidly modify and roll out new products (3D printing), prevent equipment downtime (by reporting potential maintenance problems before they materialize), stay on top of consumer preferences (real-time reports on consumer spending habits), accurately track products and inventory, and much more.
Better still, these earth-shattering advancements are relatively painless to implement for companies looking to complete a digital transformation, principally because the networks delivering IIoT are changing.
The entire industrial ecosystem is moving away from networks based on proprietary technologies and communication protocols, switching to universal standards like Ethernet, 802.11 WiFi, IP, TCP, and UDP instead. Wireless networking is also becoming a popular method for marrying corporate and industrial systems, delivering straightforward deployment and relatively low installation costs.
With these top-level explanations covered, let’s delve into some more sector-specific examples of how Industry 4.0 is reshaping the world we live in.
Energy – Smart Grids
With the world population set to reach just under 10 billion by 2050, energy consumption is a crucial concern, primarily since vast proportions of the electricity grids we use today were constructed in the 19th century. Cities and densely-populated areas will need to upgrade these overburdened and inefficient infrastructures to keep pace with demand. One of the great challenges is ensuring every unit of energy produced is put to use rather than wasted.
Smart Grids use IoT and other Industry 4.0 technologies to provide two-way communication between connected devices and hardware that sense and respond to consumer demands. Smart meters, data connectors, transformers, and sectors will all be connected to the same dedicated networks, constantly feeding information to and from each other to achieve optimal electricity delivery to residential homes and businesses.
These innovations will allow the Smart Grid to detect energy spikes, equipment failure, and power outages, allowing energy to be routed to those who need it immediately. Cities can use the same infrastructure to improve public lighting efficiency, adjust energy output based on traffic conditions and time of day, and adapt to weather conditions.
Process Manufacturing – Smart Production
Perhaps the industry most associated with the revolutionary changes delivered via Industry 4.0 is process manufacturing, covering food, beverage, chemical, paint, and pharmaceutical companies.
As alluded to above, data collected from sensors, connected equipment, and other networked devices can be combined with data and intelligence from business operations and human resources to provide a picture of performance in real-time.
These insights will allow manufacturers to adapt to volatile consumer demand instantly, spot and fix potential issues that could cause downtime, and implement real-time process adjustments to maximize output and efficiency. Better still, many of the required actions delivered by these real-time insights can be handled autonomously by the production machines themselves.
Transportation and Logistics – Reduced Traffic Delays and Smart Ports
One of the highest costs to transportation companies is losses caused by delays. With sensors being rolled out along arterial routes across the country, public traffic controllers are being provided with rich datasets that can be analyzed in mere seconds using AI, delivering route optimization for vehicles heading toward bottlenecks and congested areas.
Private companies are leveraging the same sensor technology to aid satellite navigation applications. Real-time traffic data can be fed to these apps, helping guide truckers and delivery drivers along traffic-free routes and keeping consumer and commercial goods moving toward their final destination. What’s more, business operators and customers are kept up to date with packages through RFID tags and sensors, which are updated in real-time.
Ports are also migrating to smart infrastructure delivered via Industry 4.0 technologies. Digital manifests and IoT sensors detailing a container’s content will help eliminate inspection paperwork and the manual tracking of cargo, helping to significantly reduce the $37 billion lost each year to shipping delays.
Even human-led certifications, warnings, and safety-inspection protocols can be tagged on cloud-connected manifest devices in real time, fast-tracking approval processes.
Wastewater Management – Eliminating Losses and Improving Usage
Water treatment and wastewater management are increasingly important in regions such as the US Southwest, where droughts are expected to become more frequent, more intense, and longer-lasting over the next two decades.
Industry 4.0 solutions such as IoT sensors and applications can provide real-time data concerning water flow, pressure, and temperature. Water loss through leaking infrastructure can be spotted instantaneously, and any attempts at theft or diversion can also be detected. Smart AI-driven analytics can also help people improve their consumption and preserve water supplies during times of drought.
Consumer Packaged Goods – Augmented Packaging
Industry 4.0 will also directly impact the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) market. Not only will the production of these goods benefit from similar advantages listed above in the process manufacturing section, but IoT will also change how end consumers interact with packaged goods.
Smart packaging will help FMCG companies stimulate customer engagement, provide a customized experience, and boost value and service. While QR codes are already providing added value to the purchasing experience, expect to see digital printing, RFID tags, and NFC protocols extend product communicability via product packaging.
These innovations will open the door to augmented reality and AI-driven experiences that will likely heighten interaction with and consumption of packaged goods. Examples of this pioneering technology include smart bottle caps that buzz to remind you to drink water or give you a rundown of the vitamins you have so far consumed.
Contact NCS to Begin Your Digital Transformation Journey Today
At NCS, we are helping clients across a range of sectors make the transition to industrial automation with Belden solutions. Through IIoT and other leading technological solutions, you too can make the jump to Industry 4.0 and gain a competitive advantage over those yet to future-proof their operations.
Our structured cabling and networking expertise make us a premier partner in your digital transformation journey. We can help assess networking capabilities, connectivity challenges, and structured cabling requirements to ensure you secure a seamless blend of operational and information technology.
If you would like to discuss how you can take the first steps toward complete industrial automation, please don’t hesitate to speak to a member of our experienced team at 281-484-1777, or send your inquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org.