• Antonio Masi

Industry 4.0 for Dummies

Nowadays, newspapers, magazines and blogs are full of mysterious words such as Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) or 3D printing. Such interest from the media is well motivated, since these new phenomena are dramatically reshaping the contemporary business environment. Perhaps the most obscure trend discussed by today's media is Industry 4.0. Yet, understanding this concept is more important than ever, as it could change the way companies work forever. This is why I would like to try to explain with you the concept of Industry 4.0 in the simplest way as possible - "for dummies", so to say.


The expression "Industry 4.0" was born in Germany in the early 2010s to refer to the fourth industrial revolution that could derive from the integration of digital technologies and advanced production systems. If I had to describe the core of Industry 4.0 in a couple of words, I would choose "Cyber-physical Systems" (CPS). In a way, CPS are to the fourth industrial revolution as steam is to the first one.


To understand what a cyber-physical system is, I would like to break it down into four components. The first component is an actuator: a machine that performs an activity, such as drilling a plate. The second component is a sensor, which collects data from the actuator; for instance, it could be a device that measures the vibrations of the drill. The third component is an artificial brain, capable of storing information and deriving new insights, typically thanks to a comparison with historical data; going back to our example of the drill, there could be an algorithm that analyses the vibrations of the tool in order to predict the best moment to replace it with a new one. The fourth component is a connection system, that links all the previous ones; this task could be accomplished by a WiFi connection.


The advantages of CPS are huge. In fact, they can improve all the competitive dimensions of a manufacturing systems. Going back to our example, it is easy to understand that there would be an improvement in quality, since worn out tools would be spotted out before they started producing defective products. There would be benefits also in the time dimensions - speed and reliability - as machine failures would be prevented in a much easier way. Moreover, this system could be very flexible, given that the machine learning algorithm that analyses the vibration of the drill could be easily retrained on a new product family, or on a different type of equipment. Finally, there would be cost reductions - and, consequently, the opportunity to offer more competitive prices - thanks to the lower manpower required to maintain the drill: everything has been automatized.


Actually, there would not be a simple change in the quantity of workers, but rather in their quality. Going back to our example, in fact, it would be necessary to have a good industrial engineer, who should not only be capable of identifying the potential link between the vibrations of a drill its wear and tear, but also of choosing the right machine learning algorithm, of processing the input data in the right way, and of understanding critically its outputs. In fact, without a good mix of engineering background and common sense, there is a high risk of turning the most advanced neural network, implemented by the most clever and best dressed consultants... in a random numbers generator.


So, I hope I convinced you of the potential that Industry 4.0 technologies have, and how they can boost the operational performances of modern manufacturing (and even service) systems.


However, I would like to point out once again the importance of human beings in this upcoming industrial revolution. Although it should be clear now that advanced competences are required to properly manage technologies of this complexity, it would also be interesting to think about what human intuition can do when supported by these tools. One of the best examples of intuition is the entrepreneurial sense, which I conceive as the ability to satisfy human needs in a better way than before, or even to "uncover" new needs. When entrepreneurship meets technology, the whole society can progress.


A success story of what I would call "Entrepreneurship 4.0" is the case of an Italian capital goods producer, Biesse. Biesse produces complex industrial equipment, and is a world leader in the sector of wood processing machines. Of course, this company used Industry 4.0 technologies to improve its operations. In particular, as it is stated in the Siemens website, Biesse has recently implemented a product life-cycle management platform which dramatically improves the speed of information sharing both inter-company - between the shop floor, the engineering department, and the sales one - and intra-company - between Biesse and its suppliers in the Far East. However, the managers of Biesse did something more. Leveraging on the "Big Data" collected by their design, manufacturing and sales department, they developed new software, to manage the wood production. By doing so, they expanded their business model - otherwise very traditional - with a software development component. On top of that, they also offer a wide range of pre- and after-sales services.


I hope that this article has helped you to understand what Industry 4.0 really is and its potential for our economy, and for the way we will work in the very next future.

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