Some call it the next industrial revolution, others call it the ‘internet of things’. I call it progress but whether it’s good or bad, that’s up to you to decide.

It  was nearly two decades ago I first came across the concept of Industry 4.0, of course it wasn’t called that then but the visionary I was having lunch with was telling me of his battles convincing his management to put video cameras on the production line so that customers could see their cars being built. He quite rightly predicted that bringing the customer right up close to the production process would induce a kind of loyalty previously unknown.  After all, anyone who has visited a factory knows that afterwards they see the manufacturer in a very different way.

I have always been fascinated by factories, not only discovering how things are made but also how the machines that make the things are made. As a young man starting out in my career, luck had it that I often had the chance to visit brick factories. Seeing the whole process from quarrying the clay to seeing the lorries leave the yard fully loaded was a great lesson for an enquiring mind.  In those days the lines of responsibility were clear cut. You had miners, factory workers, administrators and sales people. The concept of anyone apart from a factory worker getting anywhere near the machines was unthinkable.

In the nineties, robots seriously started to replace humans and today, in most factories they are in the majority. Look at any the video on you tube of the Mercedes production line and you will see that the only thing factory workers are doing is guiding components into place and possibly fitting a few components that the robots are not yet programmed for. Of course there is still the maintenance of the production line and I guess that we are not quite at the point where the robots are repairing themselves, or are we?

The real revolution for 4.0 for me is the breakdown in the steps between the customer and the manufacturing process. Let me explain. At one time, if you wanted to buy a new car you went to a showroom, you negotiated with a sales person, who placed the order with his administration team, who then placed and order with the distributor, who then placed an order with the factory, who then placed a production order and who then acknowledged it and sent it all the way back down the long chain. Your order specified the colour you wanted and your car was made and delivered several months later. But with industry 4.0 you can order online and the chain of communication is fully automated and instant. Not a person in sight. And then as long as your car has not gone under the paint sprayer, if you decide at the last minute you want red instead of blue, the robot will change the colour.  In a few years’ time you will even be able to see every step of your car being made, perhaps even have a conversation with the robot making it.

So what does industry 4.0 really mean? It’s not a hyped up word but the convenient expression of the fact that time and technology has moved on and we are approaching an era where production dynamics are going to be the key ingredients of any production line, bringing the end customer ever nearer to the creation process and why?  Because it is possible.

Have a good week,