Saturday, 23 January 2016

Enabling the 4th industrial revolution - "industrie 4.0" or the "internet of things"?

I've been struck recently by the range of people talking about new digital and data developments in manufacturing. Of particular interest has been the apparent explosion of discussion about industrie 4.0 (which is extremely popular in Germany), internet plus (which is being pushed by China) and the industrial internet (being promoted by GE among others).

Managers, consultants, policy makers and academics are all getting very excited about the potential of connected devices. The basic idea is that increasingly things (of all types) will be stuffed with sensors and connected to the internet. They will stream data back to the original equipment manufacturers who in turn will use sophisticated analytics to analyse and interpret the data. There are loads of examples. Caterpillar streams data back from mining and construction equipment, using this both to monitor the health of individual machines and also to identify ways in which productivity and efficiency might be increased. Rolls Royce monitors aero engines in flight, using sensors to track vibrations in fan blades, which allows them to predict whether or not maintenance is required. In the consumer world - wearable devices (e.g. Nike's fitbit or Garmin's forerunner) track and record exercise levels with the data being uploaded to the internet for benchmarking and comparison purposes.

One thing that I find interesting is the rate at which some of these ideas are developing and the level of interest there is in them. A good way of looking at this is to explore Google Trends, which basically tracks the popularity of search terms and plots these over time. Figure 1 shows a comparison of "industrie 4.0" and the "industrial internet". It neatly shows how effective the German Government and large industrial firms (including Bosch and Siemens) have been at promoting their vision of the future - industrie 4.0 - with a rapid rise of interest in industrie 4.0 since 2012.

Figure 1: Google Trends - Popularity of Search Terms "Industrie 4.0" and "Industrial Internet".

One could argue that industrie 4.0 is not a new vision. As Figure 1 also shows there has been interest in the industrial internet for at least a decade and indeed my colleagues at Cambridge IfM, most notably in DIAL (the Distributed Information and Automation Laboratory led by Professor Duncan McFarlane) have been getting our students to build demonstrators and simulations of intelligent factories for years. However, the recent excitement is a testament to the growing maturity of the technology and underlying data infrastructures that will enable a wider adoption of industrie 4.0 and this excitement has driven significant Government and policy interest, as well as research and development investment.

So is industrie 4.0 the answer? Are smart factories where materials and machines seamlessly collaborate to drive productivity and efficiency the future? I think the answer is "yes" and "no".  Much of the discussion about industrie 4.0 is still very internally focused - its a factory view of the world. A recent YouTube video illustrates the point. The video talks about a vision of tomorrow - the factory of the future - where machines and materials will use wireless data infrastructures to communicate and coordinate their activities. Yet the examples I started with are ones where the product has left the factory - manufacturers are worrying about how they can track their products once they go out into the field and are used in mines and quarries, on the wings of plans, or in our houses and cars. Here I would argue there is scope for a bigger and more impactful industrial revolution. The fourth industrial revolution will not just be about what happens inside factories, but it will encompass the entire value chain. It will involve remotely monitoring products as they are used in the field. Data will be collected and streamed back to original equipment manufacturers who will use these data to assess the health of assets, to determine whether any maintenance is required, to predict potential product breakdowns and failures. They'll use the data to improve the next generation of design, learning from experience. They'll use the data to look at how the customer's operation might be optimised. By gathering data from multiple machines in a quarry its possible to build a system model of the quarry and identify where bottlenecks lie and hence how productivity can be improved.

This extended view of the fourth industrial revolution won't just be enabled by industrie 4.0, but by the "internet of things" and that's why when you add "internet of things" to the Google Trends data a rather different picture emerges. Its clear that industrie 4.0 and the industrial internet are important component parts, but the real key to driving future success in manufacturing lies beyond the factory walls and this will be enabled by the internet of things.

Figure 2: Google Trends - Popularity of Search Terms Including "Internet of Things".

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