As consumers, we see evidence of the Internet of Things (IoT) all around us. A growing number of everyday objects in our homes and cars are now digitally connected in a way that allows us to interact with them. Even mundane items such as key chains and wallets can be made smart with trackers and mobile device apps. A similar revolution is occurring in some workplaces, with the growing ability to track factory operations and use the data to improve those operations. This trend toward connectivity, and the greater level of automation it enables, is sometimes referred to as Industry 4.0.
Manufacturing and other industries are increasingly modernizing their facilities to capture data from technologies such as radio-frequency identity (RFID) tags and readers, barcodes and scanners, sensors, and beacons. The data gathered can provide intelligence on inventory levels, how smoothly an operation is running, or when a piece of equipment needs maintenance. Even greater benefits can be realized when all the pieces (equipment, parts, tools, etc.) are connected into systems that monitor and control the factory. Imagine a production facility in which information is analyzed in real-time, then used to optimize business, physical, and digital processes. In a smart factory, everything would be interconnected, and the machines, resources, and processes would be automated and integrated. Such a manufacturing environment would be more efficient and predictable as well as capable of producing higher-quality products with less equipment downtime than what we’re used to today.
Industry 4.0 and the rise of the smart factory are sometimes described as the fourth industrial revolution. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries involved the transition from manual labor to mechanization and was accompanied by the introduction of steam power. It was followed swiftly by a second round of innovation that electrified factories and introduced the moving assembly line method of mass production. The third wave witnessed the impact of computers, robotics, and greater automation. Desktop computers replaced the mainframes of the 1970s, and computer networks (LAN, WAN, …) and the internet changed the way information was shared. Also in the game-changer category were e-commerce and the greater ability to access suppliers and customers anywhere in the world. Today, in our current revolution, we are benefiting from the explosion of sensors and the ability to network and remotely access information from these devices.
One key to this latest revolution is the ability to do something with all the data. Once the information is collected by a machine or system, it needs to be extracted, organized, and analyzed so that useful results emerge. Advanced analytic techniques are needed to process the massive volumes of data that are being generated, often at high speed. Big data analytics are enabling machine learning, which is the ability to recognize data patterns and draw upon past experiences to make accurate predictions. Rather than writing millions of lines of code for foreseeable decision trees, machine learning allows an algorithm to train itself to, for example, independently solve impending problems or run equipment more efficiently.
We are living – and working – in a connected world, creating more digital data than we could have predicted even just a few years ago. We look forward to seeing the transformations that artificial intelligence, machine learning, and smart factories will bring and how they will impact the next generation of industrial advancement.