Fourth Industrial RevolutionBy Mike Schmidt, AEM Industry Advisor Editor

The fourth industrial revolution isn’t right around the corner. It’s already arrived.

The Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, cloud computing – these technologies aren’t just poised to disrupt the manufacturing industry in the not-too-distant future. Organizations of all types and sizes are already leveraging them to establish continuous learning cycles in their operations and drive continuous improvement. And more importantly, these technologies are converging together and allowing for incredible gains to be made in both productivity and wealth creation.

“We’re in the very early stages of this fourth industrial revolution, and that’s the advent of cyberphysical systems – machines that not only have mechanical leverage, but also cognitive leverage,” said Kevin McDunn, former chief product officer and head of strategy at MxD, a Chicago-based digital manufacturing and design innovation institute.

McDunn shared his insights on the burgeoning fourth industrial revolution (otherwise known as Industry 4.0) at AEM’s most recent Thinking Forward event, held at the MxD facility. And during his presentation to attendees, he stressed the importance of manufacturers understanding the value to be obtained by leveraging digital technology and embracing Industry 4.0.

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“Machines now think, sense and respond to what’s happening,” said McDunn. “This changes the game altogether, because there's not just leverage in an operation that you are performing at any given time. There’s increased leverage over time as these systems learn. And so it’s very important to get on this learning curve before your competitors.”

Technologies To Apply

Advancements in technology offer a tremendous opportunity for U.S. manufacturing today. According to McDunn, developed economies with the richest ecosystems in terms of academics, startups and global IT stand to benefit the most because they boast innovative companies smart enough to apply the following technologies in order to drive business results:

There’s no overstating the role of AI as a driver of Industry 4.0 and, according to McDunn, it's rise “been a long time coming.” MxD’s former chief product officer cited IBM supercomputer Deep Blue’s 1997 victory over world chess champion Garry Kasparov as the technology's seminal moment, as engineers had accomplished the seemingly impossible task of teaching a computer to play chess better than a human. McDunn also cited IBM’s supercomputer Watson prevailing over human contestants on the game show Jeopardy, Google Brain teaching itself how to recognize and identify objects, and DeepMind's computer software playing (and defeating) an earlier iteration of itself in a game of Go as other monumental milestones in AI's history. 

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“Machines are teaching themselves and getting on a progressive learning curve, and accelerated learning is at the core,” said McDunn. “Reflecting on what’s been done, looking at problems, prioritizing and driving improvement. Humans have done this in manufacturing for decades. But with cyberphysical systems, we have an opportunity for machines to augment our abilities.”

Ultimately, continued McDunn, the highest purpose of digital technology in manufacturing is to create systems capable of thinking and accelerating those learning curves.

“With artificial intelligence, your algorithms and insights get better as you collect more data,” he added. “The more you produce, the better the things you produce. And the earlier you engage this kind of technology, the more advanced your capabilities will be.”

Leveraging Digital Technology

The goal for U.S. manufacturing in an age defined by technological advancement and digital noise is simple, said McDunn, “every part better than the last.” And while it’s all too easy to get bogged down with questions regarding whether or not to invest in and apply certain technologies, it’s important for manufacturers to not lose sight of what truly matters.

“You should be thinking about how you can build learning systems that will create a virtuous cycle of productivity improvements in your operations,” he said. “This is the highest use of digital technology. There may be small, incremental stepping stones along the way, but this can be your strategic master plan.” 

McDunnThere's evidence to suggest organizations today are taking advantage of the ongoing shift from an experience economy and toward a transformation economy. It’s incredibly prevalent in the B2B space. Industry 4.0 is making it easier than ever before for manufacturers to not only survive – but thrive – in a transformation economy. Mass customization, tailored products, product development cycles of zero, they're all within reach. Learning systems capable of taking all of the mystery out of what’s been done before and applying it in such a way that these tasks are possible, they now exist. And manufacturers are leveraging these learning systems to gain efficiencies and satisfy customer demand right now.

“There are a lot of manufacturing firms innovative and smart enough about how to apply technology in a way that drives business results,” said McDunn.

“It’s becoming more and more attainable with time,” he added. “And the companies that are doing it are winning.”

AEM members learned about this and other topics at a Thinking Forward event in Chicago on April 2. Visit aem.org/think to learn about more of these upcoming events in a city near you, including one at the Henry Ford Center in Dearborn, Michigan on May 14

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