For some years now academics, industry leaders and think tanks have been using the term the Fourth Industrial Revolution or ‘Industry 4.0/4IR’ to talk about the all-encompassing cyber-physical future of technology, business and society. But what is it and why is it on the radar of so many businesses, leaders and thinkers? In layman’s terms it’s the future/current blending and blurring of technology across industries, disrupting almost every known business model, process and relationship.
Technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things (connected devices), additive/ digital manufacturing (3D printing), advanced robotics, autonomous vehicles, sophisticated sensors, biotechnology, nanotechnology, blockchain and many more are already working together harmoniously to manufacturer new innovative products, make decisions and change how society works. But let’s go back a little to why it’s the called the ‘Fourth’.
The First Industrial Revolution:
Mechanisation Rural Shift -1750’s
Around the mid 1700’s there was a shift from manual rural labour to mechanised factory work. With the invent of steam power, more efficient access to coal and other inventions, manufacturing was supercharged. One of the first industries to be disrupted were textiles factories. Eventually almost all daily life was impacted by new products and processes.*
The Second Industrial Revolution:
Mass Manufacturing - 1850’s
With the first industrial revolution in full swing, electricity started to augment and replace water and steam as the primary power source in factories. With improvements in materials and processes we saw the beginning of the assembly line, interchangeable parts and with them, mass production. Imagine the number of Ford Model T’s rolling off the production line.*
The Third Industrial Revolution:
Computerisation - 1960’s
With the advances in technology after WW2 and beyond, we saw the age of computing and automation. Factories were employing robots and early CNC machines to make things in numbers and at a level of precision never before seen. Machines could run for longer and new products could be turned around much quicker.*
The Fourth Industrial Revolution:
‘Cyber-Physical’ - Now
With the unprecedented power of instant connectivity, data, sensors, analytics and algorithms we are already on the journey to technological revolution. We’re using many of these technologies in isolation; using AI to spot cancer (1), implemented IoT & analytics to transform the UK rail network (2), flying drones to map crops (3), 3D printing organs (4) and much more. But what makes this revolution challenging to understand and tricky to implement is that it’s a journey not a destination.
In the late 1700’s they would never have dreamt electricity would replace steam, nor robotics replace workers. The dream is to have all these technologies working together harmoniously, revealing new efficiencies, better ways of working and create disruptive new business models.
It’s worth remembering there are business all over the world still making the jump from revolutions 2 to 3, let alone 4, things will take time. But we do have to prepare ourselves for the future, all businesses large and small have to take a good look at the technology landscape around them internally and externally and invest time in understanding where they are on this journey. It might be investing in a few sensors for a machine to record temperature or it could be a full infrastructure overhaul - a little action is better than none.
As World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab put it in his recent book - The Fourth Industrial Revolution (World Economic Forum, 2016),
“Contrary to the previous industrial revolutions, this one is evolving at an exponential rather than linear pace. It is not only changing the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of doing things, but also ‘who’ we are.” **