Catching up with developed economies

Focusing technology competence to leverage Industry 4.0

M Rokonuzzaman | Published: November 23, 2018 21:21:43 | Updated: November 25, 2018 21:33:42

Relatively inexpensive and easy to operate, robots are now used by companies of all sizes for small-batch manufacturing and simple processes. — Reuters

While labour and raw material offer limited growth opportunity, technology opens up an endless frontier of growth. The invention of the steam engine started the 1st industrial revolution followed by the internal combustion engine and electric motors upgrading it to the 2nd level. In the middle of the 20th century, introduction of computer and automation created the 3rd industrial revolution. The dawn of the 21st century began by witnessing a new revolution-that of Industry 4.0. The genesis of Industry 4.0 is about adding intelligence to dumb production machines so that the quality increases, cost decreases and pollution lessens. With augmented intelligence, increasing roles of human, including cognitive ones are being targeted for delegation to machines, causing job loss. Although job loss apprehension is dominating the discussion of Industry 4.0, the technologies driving Industry 4.0 has enormous potential to reduce wastage, minimise energy consumption, increase safety and many more. As a matter of fact, Industry 4.0 offers the opportunity of increasing the competitiveness of diverse productive sectors starting from the clay pottery making of developing countries to car making of advanced countries.

A combination of cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Internet of Systems make Industry 4.0 possible. By gaining intelligence from data and responding to it in a coordinated manner, often without waiting for human intervention, it will make production more efficient and productive and less wasteful. For example, textile machinery fitted with machine vision capability keep detecting defects at different stages of production and instructing relevant machinery accordingly will increase quality, reduce wastage and lower consumption of chemicals.  Similarly, a connected supply chain can adjust and accommodate when new information is presented. On the other hand, robots on the factory floor and automated machinery in the warehouse or ports will coordinate to speed up production and reduce errors. There appear to be 10 major technologies driving the industry 4.0.

SENSORS AND MACHINE INTELLIGENCE ALGORITHMS: Low cost but powerful sensors (like a camera) fitted at different stages of production will be producing data to perceive the situation. Software running the algorithms will be getting intelligence from data and directing machinery to take actions. For example, empowered with this intelligence, leather cutting machine will extract more usable leather to make shoes and a host of other articles with fewer defects. Similarly, food cutters fitted with this capability is capable of extracting 5 to 7 per cent more usable food.  

AUTONOMOUS ROBOTS: Robot manipulators fitted with sensors and intelligence-- will be doing many manufacturing jobs with higher accuracy, causing less wastage. Already such machinery are detecting the presence of defects in semi-processed material (such as the presence of air bubble in tiles) to be processed and removing them from the production to avoid further processing, thereby reducing cost and wastage of material as well as energy.

BIG DATA, ANALYTICS AND INTEGRATION: Comprehensive evaluation of data will become the standard to support real-time decision making-requiring the need for data analytics software. Despite the usefulness of these data, often some technology companies blow out this possibility out of proportion. For many small producers, often simple data processing, organising and visualisation software could be good enough.

SIMULATION AND DIGITAL TWIN: With increasing adoption of robotics and availability of 3D design of products and processes, digital twin concept has emerged. Simulation plays a vital role to present real-life production process in the digital space offering the scope of configuring and fine-tuning in the digital environment before commanding physical machinery to reconfigure and follow. As a result, the time needed to reconfigure the process and the wastage produced in fine-tuning has been greatly reduced in certain situations.

INDUSTRIAL INTERNET OF THINGS: Turning different elements of production starting from forklifts to light bulbs to boilers fitted with sensors, actuators, software and connectivity into the Internet of Things has created new opportunity in the factory as well as well supply chain optimisation. Numerous benefits starting from reducing waiting time to lowering energy consumption have become targets for leveraging. 

CYBER SECURITY: As machines are getting connected in the digital space, often through the internet, the issue of cyber security emerged to surface. With increased connectivity and the use of standard communication protocols for connecting industrial IoTs, the need to protect critical industrial systems and manufacturing lines from cyber security threats increases dramatically. As a result, secure, reliable communications as well as sophisticated identity and access management of machines and users are essential.

CLOUD AND EDGE COMPUTING: Growing amount of data produced by sensor fitted production machinery should be stored, shared and processed. Although Cloud computing would be useful for sharing, often this technology is promoted out of proportion. For most of the Industry 4.0, edge computing would be more suitable than Cloud. There should be optimum use of these two technologies to minimise latency and maximise ease of sharing. 

ADDITIVE MANUFACTURING: Companies have just started using 3D printers for adding layer by layer material to minimise wastage, and maximise the accuracy of production.  With Industry 4.0, these additive-manufacturing methods will be widely used to produce small batches of customised products that offer construction advantages, such as complex, lightweight designs.

HUMAN-MACHINE COOPERATION: As Industry 4.0 picks up, robots are the latest generation of robotic systems, and they are intended to work alongside humans. Already, we have started to encounter them on the street-self-driving cars sharing the same resources. Thanks to enhancements in sensor and vision technology, robots do not need to be secured behind a cage to keep humans in the workplace safe from the rapid movements and heavy bulk that are typical in earlier generations of industrial robots. Mimicking human behaviours, and also building the capability in those robots to understand their co-human workers, is one of the key challenges in taking the advantage of this opportunity.

Despite the perception that Industry 4.0 is a major revolution, often filled with hypes, it is basically a natural progression of relentless human efforts in developing technology to get the jobs done better at less cost. There is no denying that advanced countries will take advantage of this technology to reduce human wage content in production, improve quality and reduce wastage. With the increasing use of Industry 4.0 by the advanced economies, developing countries with just labour and raw material-centric industrial strategy will keep getting marginalised. But many of the developing countries are now blessed with an increasing number of science and technology graduates. It's time to deploy those graduates to innovate around commercially available sensors and processors to make production smarter. Upon capitalising this opportunity, these countries can augment their labour advantage with process innovation capability, making them more competitive. It's time to be smarter than before, to leverage it to produce more with less, while causing less pollution, to meet the growing consumption with depleting resources.

M Rokonuzzaman Ph.D is academic, researcher and activist on technology, innovation and policy.

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