Thanks to AI and IoT, the Fourth Industrial Revolution Is Already Here

June 27, 2019 - 8 minutes read

With advancements in machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and the Internet of Things (IoT), we’ve ushered in the fourth industrial revolution ahead of schedule. Using a variety of strategically-placed sensors, factories, warehouses, and manufacturing plants are already reaping the benefits of all three of these disruptive technologies.

And It’s not simply because industrial enterprises have the smartest AI or best IoT systems around; they’re using the same technology available to everyone else. But they’re able to apply these modern systems to operations, maintenance, and robotic floor workers immediately.

AI and IoT have afforded the industrial sector better-manufactured products, lower costs, fewer injuries, less idle time, and more opportune chances to maintain and repair equipment.

But the risks may outweigh the benefits if they’re not managed effectively early on; threats like cybersecurity or a low resiliency network challenge every company utilizing IoT. These concerns are especially important when human lives are in the path of danger.

A New Era in Manufacturing

The fourth industrial revolution, also known as “Industry 4.0”, was coined to describe “industrial digitization”. This era marks a transition in which enterprises are moving from simple automations to complex robotics and networks, termed “cyber-physical systems”. In this approach, humans need robots and the robots need humans.

The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research released a brochure detailing what Industry 4.0 means: “Machines that communicate with each other, inform each other about defects in the production process, [and] identify and re-order scarce material inventories.”

Industry 4.0 will allow factories to manufacture products almost on-demand with high levels of robust optimization applied to data trends in the plant. Robots will continue to help humans pick up the slack in maintenance and repair of machines and keep quality control in outgoing shipments. And the best part? A huge degree of flexibility will be built into the entire system, so when supply chain logistics change, these robots can be adjusted to be used less or more, depending on the company’s needs.

Unlimited Potential

The European Union sees this as an inevitable future, and they’ve raised $1.3 billion to fund the European Factories of the Future Research Association. The U.S. isn’t far behind; DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) sees Industry 4.0 as a key aspect of national defense and security, and they’ve begun heavily investing in innovation, research, and implementation.

DARPA’s working on many projects revolving around Industry 4.0, and one of the most interesting is LogX. LogX uses AI to create smart supply chain systems.

Another project produced a product called Scout, which is a self-flying, weather-proofed, drone system for precision agriculture. Once the farmer adds drone flight times, the AI takes over all flying, image and data capture, and information upload to the cloud. Scout helps farmers use fewer pesticides, harvest early bloomers faster, and check on the health of their crops without expending time or energy to perform an in-person check-up.

Robots at Walmart scan shelves and update inventory automatically. Walmart also has robots that help unload trucks using sensors and pulleys. At Seattle-headquartered Amazon, robots zoom around the factory floor, grabbing products off of shelves in the warehouse and handing them to humans to process.

A Sensor Mania

Sensors are the first line of data generation in most IoT applications. Without sensors describing the environment, it’s difficult to paint a picture of what’s happening on the factory floor. Industrial enterprises are doing very well with sensors that focus on predictive machine maintenance.

In many cases, maintaining machines early and frequently ultimately yields in an 80% time reduction for enterprises. When downtime occurrences are scheduled, emergency downtime decreases.

This technology isn’t new (it’s been around since the 60s), but it’s become much less manual with automated data generation, storage, and analysis. And companies like IBM, General Electric, and MATLAB are working to optimize how and when equipment is operated to improve maintenance and repair schedules using AI.

GE’s Predix software was originally used to help maintain its jet engine fleet, but the company is selling this technology to other companies who need it. GE also used Predix to predict when trees might fall depending on weather and tree growth.

And Amazon is doing something different for its customers. Based on predictive analytics, Amazon is shipping products closer to potential customers before they place an order.

Threats and Risks

It’s true that there haven’t been any major cybersecurity attacks on the industrial sector. But that doesn’t mean we’ll always have that luxury. Because IoT is so far-reaching into everything that’s connected to the Internet, a cybersecurity attack could mean loss of power for an entire country. This exact event happened recently in Ukraine.

Experts say that predictive analytics may help identify security threats, but we must build robust cybersecurity protocols into our software from the get-go.

Another looming issue is the leakage of proprietary company data to a competitor. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research says, “The most prevalent concern, especially among [subject matter experts], is that Industry 4.0’s data is not secure, business secrets are lost, and carefully guarded companies’ knowledge is revealed to the competition.”

While these complex applications can solve multiple problems with one solution, security must rise to meet the level of complexity and reach of the application. For example, applications controlling energy or traffic must have more robust security protocols than an application watching robots on the factory floor for abnormal movement.

The Rise of Industry 4.0

Are you ready for Industry 4.0? It’s what’s enabling Amazon to offer one-day shipping on most of its products; it’s what’s helping your clothing order get shipped with the correct items; and it’s helping factory workers reclaim some time and energy for themselves, improving employee morale and job performance.

What are your thoughts about Industry 4.0? In your opinion, does it represent a step in the right direction, or do the challenges outweigh the opportunities? Let us know in the comments below!

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