Industry 4.0 is a marketing campaign to create a perception of value in something that doesn’t exist yet. What it really is, is a useful framework to start talking about how manufacturing will evolve in the coming years. On one hand, the emergence of lower cost, intelligent peripherals and networks is making it practical to implement a lot of useful applications that were previously too expensive. On the other hand, there is a lot of hyperbole going around about ‘cyber physical systems’ and how great it’s all going to be.
Creating software models of the factory floor might be a bit grandiose compared to what we actually do. It’s a good analogy to use for discussion, but given we are only at the beginning of this process, it may not quite work out that way.
The ‘Factory of the Future’ was a concept that automation equipment vendors were selling since the early days of the PLC, 1970s. Now, after about 45 years of progress, albeit slow progress, it seems to finally be here. Anybody remember paperless manufacturing? That was another great idea before it’s time.
We should take a moment and contemplate that fact. Whatever is going to happen in the future hasn’t happened yet. We are only able to see a small distance ahead and speculate on the more obvious things that occur to us. Most of our grand pronouncements about the future have been wrong.
What is really at work is that processors and network interconnects continue to get cheaper and more powerful. Cost is always the barrier, so what should we expect to see happen when networks are reduced to the cost of a connector and 32 bit processors cost less than $1? Sensors can have sufficient embedded intelligence to execute complex algorithms at the point of use as a strategy for managing data more efficiently. The latest Raspberry Pi is a 4 Core ARM processor running at 1.2 gigahertz for $35, fully connectorized. Incredible!
The real ‘art’ that is yet to come will manifest as subject matter experts in every field of human activity create new application code with the new lower cost tools that are at their disposal. Just as 3D printing is just beginning to transform things, just as print costs are declining and capabilities are increasing, these are both powerful forces that will take quite some time to reach maturity.
So in answer to the question; “Are we there yet?”, the answer is definitely “No”. Is it going to be an amazing journey? You bet.