Technology has changed many aspects of our lives, and it's a process that doesn't stand still. The latest sector to feel the heat of the technology revolution is manufacturing. What is known as 'Industry 4.0' is all about creating smart factories where IT systems monitor physical processes and are able to make decisions without human intervention.
This cyber-physical approach is a step on from earlier factory automation techniques which focused on areas such as robotics which, although capable of operating without attention for long periods, could only perform a limited range of tasks.
Internet of Things
Because more and more devices are now online via the Internet of Things, machines are now able to communicate with each other in real time. This means that in the event of a problem, a machine can tell others in the production process to stop or slow down pending human intervention to solve the problem.
Cyber-physical systems are able to make decisions based upon a virtual copy of their physical world. Of course, this relies on all the machines in a manufacturing process being able to communicate with each other via the IoT. They also need to be able to communicate with the regular world so that they can call for engineering assistance if required.
There are major advantages to Industry 4.0 systems, particularly in environments that are hazardous or unpleasant for humans to operate in for long periods. Because the machines are able to make autonomous decisions in most circumstances, the need for human intervention is kept to a minimum.
There's the potential, of course, for cyber-physical systems to spread throughout the supply chain, so that ordering of components and shipping of finished goods is all integrated. Add in the growing use of big data analytics to understand markets and it's even possible that systems could decide which products are needed at different times in order to meet consumer demand.
Like any new technology, the introduction of cyber-physical systems is going to lead to some challenges that will need to be overcome. Not least of these in the short term is a change in working patterns. While less skilled jobs may be replaced by machines, there is likely to be a shortage of the people needed to design and control systems. This will undoubtedly present recruitment problems for manufacturing businesses.
Other issues surround the security of processes that are always online. We've already seen limited instances of IoT devices being used to carry out cyber attacks. Without proper security, it's possible that Industry 4.0 factories could be targeted by state-sponsored cyber terrorists or even by unscrupulous competitors, or simply cyber criminals seeking a ransom.
There is also a need to protect intellectual property. There is a risk of confidential manufacturing information being exposed when systems are, for example, linked to those of suppliers to order fresh raw materials. Once again the recruitment of particular skills will come into play as companies need to find information security specialists and It experts to keep their systems operating smoothly.
Industry 4.0 is still in its relative infancy, but there can be little doubt that it will have a major impact in the near future as humans seek to redefine their role in a world of intelligent machines. This has implications for education and training, recruitment, work/life balance and a whole raft of other areas of life.
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