We are not on the cusp of an industrial revolution but living it as we speak, argues Joe Young, a Senior Research Engineer at the Manufacturing Technology Centre. To ensure that they are not left behind, manufacturers should start rethinking their business models now.
"The concept of a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ has been around for five years and there are already a lot of companies that apply it in practice," says Joe Young, a Senior Research Engineer at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) based in the United Kingdom.
Start preparing for digital disruption now
Young acknowledges that the digital transformation process was at the moment still in its infancy and limited to a few pioneering actors. "Most of these early adopters are companies that can afford it."
However, he is keen to emphasize that this was not a reason for manufacturers to neglect the impact of digital technology, far from it. "In the next five to ten years, we will see these technologies shift and become more commonplace so that soon, companies can’t afford to ignore this." In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic, with its imperative of remote working, had already compelled many businesses to think about how they could integrate digital solutions into their business models. It is therefore a very opportune time to engage in preparations for the path ahead.
For Young, the challenge that companies face is as much a philosophical one as it is a logistical one. "It’s not just about installing a shedload of robots and technology to be worked on by AI. It’s far more than that." Since new technologies could lastingly change business models and focuses, it was important for company leaderships to invest sufficient time and thought into how to design their adaptation strategy: "A first step is to evaluate where you are currently and map out exactly where Industry 4.0 can provide the best input to your work," he says.
The challenges posed by digital innovation can be solved
Nonetheless, Young understands that this is a process that creates a lot of anxieties across all company levels. At the top, there are concerns around costs, while many workers fear the impact of automation. Young believes that both challenges could be overcome, if approached prudently.
Speaking of the financial side of the equation, Young suggests that the industry should focus on containing long-term risks. "Companies need to see it as a strategic investment." He also thinks that the forward march of digital technology is not necessarily bound to result in unemployment. "There is no risk of this process happening overnight. It will be an incremental process which will allow people to develop skills if they want to and go along with the transformation," he adds.
"A first step is to evaluate where you are currently and map out exactly where Industry 4.0 can provide the best input to your work"
Nonetheless, Young stresses that companies should and could seek outside support. In the United Kingdom, there were multiple instruments and programs available for businesses to help them manage the transition. This included public sector funding opportunities but also schemes offering to help companies with their strategic and operational plans. "There is an evaluation tool that allows you to measure your digital maturity and assess where you need to take action and formulate your ambition."
Young also cites the UK’s government-funded Smart Factories Innovation Hubs, which allowed businesses to test out ideas before they disrupt their operations, and industrial clusters, which could help different sectors to coordinate their operations.
Industry 4.0 can foster a wealthier and healthier planet
Crucially, for Young, the digital revolution is not an end in itself but a gateway to a more prosperous and ecologically sustainable future. "If you go back to when Industry 4.0 was first put out in 2015, productivity and agility was the key viewpoint. The same toolkit can be applied to environmental impact manufacturing."
Digital technology could, for instance, help to prevent waste by providing more precise data on the company’s needs. In Young’s view, the most promising avenue towards greater sustainability, however, is for manufacturers to think beyond their own operations. "One company’s waste can be another company’s natural resource. A shift from siloed individual smart factories to a network of smart factories can create an entire intelligent supply chain."
The latter initiative, in fact, points to a key feature of this digital transformation that Young is keen to emphasize. "You must not only look at manufacturing, but the whole value chain. They are all interconnected."