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It is becoming a matter of common knowledge that we are in the middle of a fourth industrial revolution, alternately referred to as the Industrial Internet or Industry 4.0. This circumference directed from the usual combination of capacity and need, and as usual, participation will not be optional.
In each previous period of revolution, companies that wished to remain competitive in the marketplace had little choice but to embrace the march of technology and leverage the same revolutionary tools employed by their competitors. In the late 18th or early 19th Century, when Jim's Widget Factory down the street bought a steam engine to power his production processes, how could you hope to keep your widget factory afloat? No clever re-organization of your business processes or motivated personnel could ever hope to compete with a steam engine. The reality is you had to get one too.
The same holds true when you move into the next period of revolution (Industry 2.0), marked by the introduction of the moving assembly line and electrically-powered production. Obviously, it did not happen overnight, but when your toughest competitors began to employ this new technology, there was no way to pretest your comparatively slow manual assembly line could ever hope to compete. The inevitably ubiquitous nature of these technological advances is exactly what made them "revolutionary". Flash forward to the advent of the microchip and personal computers – Industry 3.0 – and an obvious pattern emerging.
Industrial revolutions do not just affect the few companies that have the resources to leverage the new technologies; they affect the entire industry. Whatever you and your organization choose to embrace the revolution or ignore it, there is no way to stop it and there is no way to shield yourself from its influence on the marketplace.
So, What is Industry 4.0?
The latest industrial revolution centers around the new world of smart, connected objects. This is the realm of autonomous factories and self-healing machines. This is the world published in the science fiction of the mid-twenty century. Through the convergent development of advanced computing power, sophisticated network technology, sensors, robotics, and analytical techniques, we are seeing the integration of systems both vertically and horizontally. We are seeing machines communicating with other machines and making decisions based on real-time data. We are entering a time when new rules are emerging and business processes are being evaluated anew. Much in the same way that previous revolutionary advances forced themselves into the awareness of business owners and managers, the time has come to face reality of the industrial internet.
Of course, a unique thing about this fourth industrial revolution is that its benefits extend beyond the marketplace. Whereas previously advances were made by increasing the scale or speed of production, the new paradigm focuses on increasing efficiency, reducing resource consumption and eliminating waste to find opportunities for greater profit. The new industrial landscape of smart, connected devices will incidentally lead to a cleaner, safer, more sustainable planet.
Industrial enterprises that have embroidered the new paradigm have seen measurable results. Real-time consumer data is helping companies be more responsive to the needs and expectations of their customers, and helping to eliminate gaps between supply and demand. Predictive analysis is helping to reduce maintenance costs and incrementally improve production processes through systems of continuous improvement. A plant floor machine can now be aware of its current condition and environment and make decisions about its operation – or even the operation of other machines.
The fourth industrial revolution is every bit as revolutionary as the previous three, and the evidence surrounds us. We are living in a smarter, connected world full of "smart" cities full of "smart" buildings, and this is only the beginning. By 2020, what we now call Industry 4.0 will be known simply as 'industry'. Where will you and your business be?