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Getting Digitalized: A Look at Industry 4.0

Getting Digitalized: A Look at Industry 4.0

EU Automation's Jonathan Wilkins talks to Technology Editor Bill Wong about the company's new book, which explores Industry 4.0 and digital industry around the world.

The first two decades of the 21st century have experienced perhaps the fastest pace of innovation the world has ever seen. However, not everyone is on the same page. While some countries have led the way with new technologies, others are still in their infancy.

I talked with Jonathan Wilkins, marketing director at EU Automation, about the company’s newly published book 4.0 Sight—Digital industry around the world.

What is the rationale behind this book?

This is the second book we’ve published. Where the first one talked about an industry close to our heart—that of industrial obsolescence management. This one talks about a topic that everyone in industry has had some exposure to, that of Industry 4.0.

As a company that specializes in the supply of obsolete industrial parts, we’ve been on a journey to expand our operations in the last few years, particularly to North America and Asia. The thing we’ve learned on our travels is that different countries are at different points in their journey to digitalization.

We decided to write this book to give engineers and business leaders a sense of the developments being made as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It includes interviews with leading figures in industries around the world, from robotics specialists ABB and Toshiba Machine, to additive-manufacturing expert Renishaw and automation giant GE.

What are the key challenges the world faces as we see the inception of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

When you look at previous Industrial Revolutions that the world has experienced, they can be characterized by change that was fostered over vast periods of time, often over hundreds or thousands of years. They had the luxury of inciting incremental change that brought about fundamental transformations to society, agriculture, transport, and infrastructure.

The key difference between the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the three that preceded it, which were characterized by steam mechanization, mass production, and information, respectively, is that each revolution has become successively shorter. This has resulted in a fragmented pace of innovation and adoption of new technologies. Not all businesses are aware of the necessary digital changes they need to make and not all governments have put in place robust incentives and initiatives to drive change.

The speed of change has also created a technological skills gap between the skills that industry needs and the supply of graduates entering the industry with those skills. This is creating not only the need to upskill, but also the need to accelerate the commercialization of research and development innovations. Elsewhere in the world, the use of advanced technology is becoming necessary to tackle a societal problem of aging populations, to improve mobility and the quality of life.

Which countries are leading the race for digitalization?

Jonathan Wilkins, Marketing Director, EU Automation

Germany, where the phrase “Industry 4.0” was first coined, is doing well. It has the largest national economy in Europe, the fourth largest by nominal GDP in the world, and, in 2016, recorded the highest global trade surplus. Following the launch of the phrase Industrie 4.0 at Hannover Fair, the Plattform Industrie 4.0 was set up to increase collaboration across industry. It has already innovated in the areas of cyber-physical systems, mobility, health, energy, and modular automation.

Elsewhere in Europe, the U.K. is making strides in artificial intelligence and clean energy; Belgium has been praised for its innovation conferences on product customization; and France is focused on developing the next generation of autonomous, energy-harvesting sensors.

In the U.S., digitalization has been a lifeline, helping to recover the last two decades of decline in the manufacturing sector. The Manufacturing USA program has seen the introduction of technology institutes around the country specializing in advanced manufacturing research. They are set to deliver groundbreaking innovation in areas such as clean energy, material composites, semiconductors, flexible hybrid electronics, and biopharmaceuticals, to name just a few.

What are the big technological trends being popularized by Industry 4.0?

Probably the biggest buzzword in industry right now is artificial intelligence, and while we’ve seen developments in machine learning and the use of better algorithms, we’ve yet to truly see the benefits of AI. This will change as Internet of Things systems become more popular and human behavior in production environments is enhanced by AI.

Another technology we’ve seen making a difference is digital twinning. This involves the use of computerized 3D models to virtually map a factory’s entire processes in real time. All of the data that companies have been collecting for years but haven’t known how to use, can now be manipulated to provide insights and forecasts. Equipment can be virtually commissioned, and material and tooling expenses can be determined well ahead of time.

Can you give us some predictions for trends you expect to see in the future?

The way we design and build plants and factories will change thanks to modular automation. Instead of building a factory for a single purpose, smaller self-contained automation “building blocks” will help to scale production up and down based on needs.

IoT sensors will be increasingly used in edge computing and augmented-reality (AR) glasses will help maintenance engineers take visual walkthroughs of problems on the factory floor. In automation environments, deep learning will help improve collaborative robots working alongside human beings. In addition, we’ll see the advent of new job roles in the form of data scientists and chief information security officers (CISOs) to manage elements of digitalization.

What advice can you give for companies looking to digitalize?

From the many interviews we’ve done in the book, a recurring theme has been that digitalization doesn’t have to be difficult. It isn’t about overhauling your entire operations to take advantage of digital technologies. It’s more about the small steps you can take to begin digitalizing parts of your plant. This could mean adding digital sensors to legacy motors and pumps to begin collecting data on cycle times, heat, and vibration, or it could mean using cloud connectivity to roll out remote monitoring for field staff.

To download a free copy of EU Automation’s new book, 4.0 Sight—Digital industry around the world, visit

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