By Siobhan Chesher

People talk about the Industrial Revolution like it was a historic event. But my time in B2B marketing has taught me that it has never finished – and with Industry 4.0, it’s more evolution than revolution.

From the steam age to the birth of mass production and on to robotic automation, it’s been a story of incremental change as factories take advantage of each emerging technology.

The latest chapter is Industry 4.0, in which the Internet of Things brings together human and machine in a slick production system.

It’s agile and reactive and adapts to changing times – and it reminds me very much of B2B public relations and B2B communications in this regard. In both instances, what was good enough in the 90s doesn’t cut the mustard in today’s got-to-have-it-now society.

Just as B2B PR has adapted to the arrival of social media, blogs and content marketing, the internet has presented new opportunities for a fully integrated manufacturing process.

Replacing people with machines

There are fears this evolution is about replacing people with machines, just as each great leap forward in industry has done. But really it’s about enabling people and machines to work better together and to inform each other’s actions.

The arrival of fast, cheap wireless internet has been a big driver in Industry 4.0. It has enabled the communication between technology and people that is at the centre of the evolution.

The principle is that businesses create an intelligent manufacturing network, connecting machines and systems that control one another autonomously.

An essential part of the system is the creation of a virtual representation of the factory that is continuously monitored, allowing the system to make decisions about itself. 

It organises its own logistics and predicts where failures will occur then acts to mediate them, including scheduling its own maintenance. Using the just-in-time doctrine that is central to modern manufacturing, even those repairs are carried out at the time that least interferes with production.

Humans make decisions

While humans may be needed to help make some high level decisions, the “smart factory” can help humans make decisions due to the depth of data and analysis it can provide. This constant feed of information is essential to Industry 4.0’s proper function.

And while there’s lots of talk about Industry 4.0 meaning businesses need to rip apart their factories and start again, there are firms integrating it into their systems without huge investment.

The march of these autonomous plants, their strides towards a fully digital manufacturing system, offers up real business opportunities.

They are supremely adaptable to the just-in-time model, able to reconfigure themselves intelligently to fit to demand. They can change and modify their systems quickly to cope with a surge in work.

This adaptability opens up doors for new forms of manufacturing business. There are already the beginnings of manufacturing brokerages, who find factories which can produce items for third parties at short notice. This could see items made at a network of factories worldwide rather than made in one country and exported.

World of possibilities

Then there are possibilities in pay-per-use and subscription services, where perhaps smaller volumes of products are required. 

A third stream would see product designers leasing or selling their intellectual property – their actual ideas – to manufacturers for a share of the profits.

Then there’s the opportunity in all that data a smart factory produces about itself. Improved analysis of the available information could lead to greater productivity and lower costs.

You can see change as something to run from or run towards. Industry 4.0 is an opportunity to be chased.

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