There is a revolution taking place right now, and most people have never even heard of it. It’s an industrial revolution, and it’s changing the way companies design, create, and manufacture products and get them to their customers.

The first industrial revolution occurred when humans began harnessing the power of water and steam to drive their machines and increase production. The second happened with the advent of electricity, and the third with the introduction of computers into the workplace. The fourth is now upon us. The so-called “Industry 4.0” is being driven now by Big Data, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

How exactly are factories changing?

For one thing, humans are becoming obsolete. So called “dark factories,” which run completely on their own without human input are becoming more of a reality. China even recently approved a five year plan which would to give billions of yuan to manufacturers in order to upgrade their technology to include advanced machinery and robots.

One of the key factors in making this a reality will be developing robotic AI which can actually learn on the job and perform many different tasks. Most factories in China manufacture a wide range of goods, so having robots which only perform a single task isn’t very helpful. However, having robots which can be taught to perform any number of tasks and adapt to new conditions quickly and easily would be of enormous value.

Data is a raw material

As a result of the the interconnectivity of billions of machines, sensors, and systems worldwide, an enormous amount of data is being generated. In 2012 alone, 462 exabytes of data were generated worldwide. That number is expected to grow to 14,996 exabytes of data (about equal to 15 trillion gigabytes) by 2020.

All this data will affect the efficiency and productivity in ways we’re just beginning to understand. For instance, with interconnected machines in a factory, one machine could tell another when a part is finished, and signal the beginning of another process, or call a logistics robot to pick it up, or even send an email alerting the delivery system that the product is ready to be shipped.

Machines could also communicate when their parts are nearing the completion of their lifecycle and need to be replaced. A ‘handyman’ machine would then be deployed to make the necessary repairs so no time is lost, and replacement parts could be automatically ordered from remote warehouses or factories.

Virtual planning and optimization

Launching a new plant or adapting an existing plant to produce a new product is a huge undertaking involving design, adaptations, testing, and trials. Any unexpected delays or a production standstill can be extremely costly to many different businesses.

After Industry 4.0, this whole process will be designed, tested, and refined in the virtual world before a single physical screw is turned. Initial trials have shown that it’s possible to set up an automotive part production unit in just three days using virtual reality, as opposed to the 3 months it currently requires.

Virtual plants can be easily designed to optimize the flow of production as well as how workers perform their tasks. Some manufacturers have even created digital representations of factory floor workers in order to test what changes are needed in a facility to reduce strain on employees’ backs during assembly production.

Putting augmented reality to work on the factory floor

Augmented reality applications are also increasing the productivity of warehouse and factory workers. For instance, “pickers” in logistics company warehouses can wear smart glasses which would display real-time directions to find packages, and automatically scan the packages with a glance once they’re found. This would free workers from having to carry handheld scanners, and allow them to use both hands for their tasks.

Furthermore, factory workers can use augmented reality headsets to display assembly instructions for complicated parts, freeing them from having to consult printed instructions, which has been shown to significantly reduce mistakes and eliminate downtime.

The Factory 4.0

Industry 4.0 is changing the way manufacturing operates on all levels from the supply chain, all the way to the delivery to the final customers. You can imagine a day in which an order from a customer triggers a chain reaction sending raw materials from a warehouse to an automated factory where they would be assembled by a team of robots according to the exact specifications of the customer, then boxed up and shipped out without a human ever touching the product. There are a few areas which still need improvement in order for this to become a reality, such as:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • More widespread object-to-object communication.
  • Systems for processing huge amounts of data.
  • Virtual reality optimization
  • Cyber security to ensure the safety of internet-based manufacturing.

This vision of the future might seem a bit like sci-fi at the moment, but it’s likely only a decade or so away. Very soon you’ll click a button in your living room in New York, and a robot will spring to life in a warehouse in Shanghai, ready to build a product to your exact specifications.