We need Industry 4.0 now more than ever

In this period of extreme uncertainty, it is important to remain positive and take the best of the situation, learn the lesson in order not to let ourselves be caught unprepared in the future. The lesson learned is that we need Industry 4.0 now more than ever. Probably next time it will no longer be a pandemic, but surely further unpredictable scenarios will be there waiting for us. And this time, we will have to be prepared.

Lesson Learned: we need Industry 4.0

Unlike what is happening today -health crisis-, in 2006 a global economic crisis arose, which broke out in the United States of America and triggered by a real estate bubble, producing a serious financial crisis in the American economy.

Starting from this period, the major western economies, especially the European ones, experienced a production crisis, including the locomotive Germany, which lasted for several years.

In this context, some representatives of the German academic, political and industrial world, in November 2011 published a strategic document in which it was explained how this negative spiral could be reversed by the use of the new digital technologies in the factories, in order to improve the quality of the products, the flexibility of production systems and at the same time reduce costs. This would also allow to re-locate European manufacturing from low cost countries. The Fourth Industrial Revolution was officially started.

Why would Industry 4.0 have been very useful to us today?

Although there have been proclamations and intentions by governments and organizations about an increasing use of these technologies, the truth is that we are still only at the beginning. Looking at the data, it can be seen that digital has not fully entered in the mindset of the western manufacturing sector.

But how would the Smart Factory have made us very comfortable today, in a period in which the quarantine extends to entire states, effectively forcing the factories to close or to work at minimum speed?

The heart of the Smart Factory is made up of cyber-physical systems, that is, corporate assets capable to communicate with each other through the cloud. These assets can be replicated in digital models, which by receiving information from physical assets, are able to perfectly replicate the dynamics of the real production system.

Obviously, achieving this system is a long-term and by no means easy goal. Anyone with a minimum of factory experience knows how human intervention is still needed very often, people with his experience, flexibility and decision-making ability are able to adapt and modify processes quickly.

Will new technologies succeed in replacing man in the production chain? There are several schools of thought, but surely, robotics and automation associated with the management of intelligent inter-connection of machinery will minimize human presence in factories. In order for this system to work, however, it becomes fundamental that cyber security plays a fundamental role: in fact, what would happen if a new coronavirus, this time IT, would destabilize our production systems?

In this scenario, humans will have a supervisory and control role that can be carried out for most of the time remotely.

But where is the news compared to many production lines that already work fully automatically?

The difference lies in its intrinsic flexibility and autonomy: even in the most advanced factories, man becomes fundamental when it is necessary to change product often and , job, operation often and quickly; man is able to get into cramped spaces quickly, adapting almost immediately to different situations, which is what is still difficult to automate today. The reconfigurable production systems, therefore, still rely on human capabilities. At least for now.

Let’s start Industry 4.0 now, before it’s too late

The road to the smart factory is still very long and complex, but it is necessary to take it as soon as possible. However, some social problems that are not easy to answer will have to be solved: if the factories are able to manage themselves practically autonomously and if human intervention is reduced to a mere factor of supervision and control, how the people who are laid off will earn their living, or no longer hired? Political and civil society will have to answer.

Conclusion

We need to embrace Industry 4.0 now before it’s too late. We are living in a fast paced world in which changes are happening faster than before and in an unpredictable way. Therefore, it’s important to learn how to deal with these changes before it’s too late.

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Nicola Accialini

Nicola Accialini

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Engineer, consultant, digital entrepreneur and traveller, not necessarily in this order | Italian, lived in Germany, now in Spain | www.accialiniconsulting.com