How we do work has changed dramatically over the last few hundred years. We can arbitrarily refer to the Industrial Revolution using steam power as Industrie 1.0, irrespective of the fact that we should really be talking about Industry 2.0 or 3.0 based on a more appropriate historical context.
Even assuming 1.0, Industrie 2.0 would have to be based on the advent of broadly available electric power in the late 1800’s as a result of Edison’s commercialization of electric light. With electricity broadly available, the electric motor began to replace the steam engine as a primary source of motive power. Over the years electric motors have become known as the “workhorse of industry”, which metaphor is meaningless in current society, because so few people do work using horses.
Control of electrically powered systems was generally based on the use of relays, electromechanical switches that were either on or off. By combining control relays into increasingly complex schemes, even using current or voltage sensing relays to detect analog values in the control system, incredibly elaborate control systems could be created for manufacturing. This technology powered great expansion in manufacturing up through the 1960’s.
If one accepts the age of electricity as Industrie 2.0, how exactly does assembly line production fit into the equation? Ford’s assembly line as the organizing principle of “how we do work” was revolutionary and lead to incredible cost reductions in the production of automobiles. Mass production was unheard of prior to Ford and must be considered Industrie 3.0 at a minimum. The subtlety of mass production is the massive investment cost required to achieve high volume centralized production.
The solid state age of control must surely be considered Industrie 4.0. Inexpensive semiconductor devices that are able to control all forms of power, electricity, pneumatic and hydraulic, scalable to millions of devices so that complex logic can be done without the use of relays. As industrial control systems became complex, costly and difficult to troubleshoot because of the electromechanical relay, solid state systems benefited from programmability and low cost.
Digital control sets the stage for the next generation since everything could be reduced to on/off states and simple variables. Programmable control systems became the preferred solution for the emerging Automation of industrial manufacturing. Machine controls for the past 50 years have been difficult to integrate with emerging information systems. With the semiconductor approach to control systems, we enter the digital age in which all events and processes are modeled and manipulated as 0’s and 1’s.
An extraordinary anomaly in the world of automation is The Writer (YouTube linked) was designed and built in the early 1770’s in Switzerland by a renowned watch maker. Not only does it still work after 240 years, it is completely programmable and demonstrates Babbage’s concept of the mechanical computer 20 years before he was born.
The current wave of convergence between industrial control systems and information technology is made possible only because of the 50 years of progress in digital control. Computing capability that costs almost nothing are combined with the virtually free communication networks. Suddenly we are able to imagine nearly limitless compute power and the ability to interact with digital models of the real world. An undiscovered world of subtle properties that takes place in the course of production can be made available to management and supervisory personnel.
The next decade is going to be amazing.