If we want to understand what factory automation is and why it matters, we need to get a sense of where it comes from and where it’s going. This blog gives a quick overview of Industry 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 – which have brought us to the beginning of Industry 4.0 – and close to another quantum leap for automation.
Automation has been around in many forms for millennia. After all, the use of tools to help us perform difficult or repetitive tasks is a foundation of human civilization. In pre-industrial times, the ancient Greeks and Romans designed feedback systems into water clocks, allowing the devices to self-regulate without people having to tweak them all the time. The Chinese invented water-driven trip hammers to automate the pounding and processing of grains and metals over 2,000 years ago.
The first industrial revolution changed the world…
The first industrial revolution at the end of the 18th century, the one most people refer to as THE Industrial Revolution, ushered in a new economic age and disrupted the existing social order. Industry 1.0 transformed society when a lot of what used to be man-made by skilled artisans became machine-made.
The first industrial revolution combined clever mechanization with power that came from something besides muscle. Automation 1.0’s pioneers harnessed water mills and coal-fired steam turbines to drive new kinds of mechanizations, making textiles and all kinds of other goods faster and cheaper. Humanity (apart from the occasional Luddite then and now) has never looked back.
…and the second one accelerated the changes.
Industry 2.0 was all about mass production first powered by electricity, then kept moving by oil. Beginning in the late 1800s and picking up pace at the turn of the 20th century, innovators developed efficient assembly lines that automated production flows as raw materials and parts were transformed into finished goods.
Productivity skyrocketed as standardization ruled, the division of labor grew, and Taylor’s time studies gave birth to “scientific management”. Trailblazers such as Henry Ford changed his own and many other industries by following maxims like “There is only one rule for the industrialist and that is: Make the best quality of goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible,” and “Any color – so long as it’s black.”
The term “automation”, in the manufacturing sense, was coined in the middle of Industry 2.0. Delmar Harder, Ford’s vice president of manufacturing, first described what we now recognize as factory automation in 1947 (the same year Henry Ford died): the production processes and part-handling that is automatically handled by machinery.
Industry 3.0: Say hello to computers, robots and the internet
Beginning in the late 1960s, Industry 3.0 leveraged electrical mechanization with the power of computers. Or, more precisely, with a certain kind of computer called Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs).
PLCs put factory automation on steroids. Conceived specifically for industrial use, these computing workhorses were more rugged and simpler to program than their clunky mainframe cousins and soon revolutionized the shop floor. Skilled workers could program complex processes without IT degrees. Control systems that used to take hours, days and weeks to set up or reconfigure could be modified in minutes. Of course, other computers far from production halls also play a key role in Industry 3.0, and robot technology has developed rapidly in this industrial age as well.
If pre-mid-20th century automation was about lightening the burden for workers, Industry 3.0 has been about flexible mass production on an increasingly large scale. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, supply chain concepts – indeed the very idea of supply chain management –became crucial. Future-proofing industrial production meant considering and adapting to how automation would impact not only production processes, but also competitiveness. Automation increasingly became a C-suite discipline.
Then along came something called the internet in the 1990s and changed everything, again.
The internet connected PLCs, PCs, mainframes, sensors, SCADA systems, robots and people all over the planet and enabled businesses to do things even more intelligently and efficiently. Now, computerized automation processes are the norm rather than the exception in industries around the world. They are very much a part of the present and the future. But they are not the technology, or the convergence of technologies, that defines the next frontier, Industry 4.0.
Industry 4.0: At least some parts of the world will be getting smarter
What does the future pf automation hold? The answer lies in a mix of more digitization, exponentially increased processing power, analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics – all working in unison. It’ll be, above all, about smart automation. Welcome to Industry 4.0.
Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, kicked off the Industry 4.0 conversation last year with his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Unlike a lot of hand-wringers who worry about how robots will outsmart humans after “the singularity”, Schwab’s take on Industry 4.0 is essentially optimistic. Our capabilities in the digital, biological and physical worlds are not only expanding exponentially, they’re now converging in radically transformative ways. According to Schwab, this new technological convergence could lead humankind into a new era of prosperity where economic and social growth will accelerate in new ways. Industry 4.0 will affect automation. And automation will affect – and multiply – the technologies converging and even coalescing in Industry 4.0
Continued development of existing automation technologies will enable production companies to keep ramping up production, of course. Better conveyors, better automated stacking systems, palletizers, press machines, torque assemblies – you get the idea. No doubt, better robots (more flexible, less costly, etc.) will play an important role here, too. But improving the hardware side of more efficient production environments is, to a certain extent, the easy part.
Ultimately, the future of automation will be data-driven, and more about the convergence of people, hardware, software and new insights.
The computers and programs that first enhanced automation throughout the 20th century led to a growing use of sensors and other measurement systems. The smart sensors gave corporations access to data, but not necessarily ways to use it efficiently. Even parsing and formatting data has proven problematic for many corporations.
Future automation will leverage analytics and integrate various data sources to improve workflows and create new business opportunities. Similarly, predictive analytics will forecast future events, thus improving current and future practices and reducing the risk of something going wrong in the future. Both AI and machine learning are bound to help, too. Deep learning algorithms and neural networks will not only gather data in new ways, but transform data into information and insight in clearer ways.
Once everyone, including the C-suite, has access to information derived from terabytes of new data sets in easy-to-understand formats, new patterns, pictures and knowledge will emerge. This will allow corporations to make even better evidence-based decisions as to how to develop and maintain their production lines.
The benefits will be enormous. New ways to deploy automation, new automated processes, better analysis of problem areas (which, once tackled, will mean cost-savings and faster operations), higher throughput, more reliable predictions and better accuracy. And all of it based on trustworthy metrics.
Of course, not every company is there yet – far from it. But digitization is growing, and new AI processes are already transforming data into actionable intelligence to improve automation processes. Google’s DeepMind AI recently reduced the tech giant’s data center cooling bills by 40% – just one of the many examples where smarter automation has already proven its worth.
Here at Qubiqa we’re already sensing what Industry 4.0 will mean for factory automation. Customers are thinking about collecting data and how to turn it into insight. Human-machine interfaces, while always important, are coming more and more into focus as we find new ways to make the complex simple. We look forward to continuing the conversations that Industry 4.0 is starting – and to finding even better ways to help manufacturers be on the winning side of the fourth industrial revolution.