The Mechanical Engineer’s Cheat Sheet to Industry 4.0

A term that was birthed out of a German drive for innovation has now come to exemplify the pinnacle of the modern industry. Since the 1840s, manufacturing and engineering has faced a rapid growth of capability. We have gained machine production, eventually shifting to computerized manufacturing and design. Ever since the rapid innovation period that was the industrial revolution, the manufacturing industry has been getting more data. Temperatures, rates of production, plant capabilities – these data points are now easily accessible. The manufacturing industry has always innovated alongside the availability to capture information.

In the modern age, our manufacturing has gotten so complex that there is simply too much data; there’s too much to handle. That’s where Industry 4.0 comes into play.

You likely recognize the term or even utilize many of its components, but understanding the radical shift that is taking place in how manufacturing is managed has the potential to make or break you as a great engineer. This new age of industry brings cyber-physical systems into the forefront of innovation. These systems are tools like sensors, monitors, programs, and connected machines. All of these tools allow us as engineers to gather and read data, but this creates an emerging problem – big data. Big data is the result of having every aspect of manufacturing being connected to one central hub and gathering data that is albeit, useful, but can be overwhelming to a singular engineer. From these new technologies and the problems that arise, come solutions and new tools through Industry 4.0.

Why Big Data Shouldn’t Cause a Big Scare

Industry 4.0 is essentially the trend towards manufacturing automation and information exchange throughout manufacturing. It’s the move beyond computer automation to cyber-physical machines. This term encompasses everything from the Internet of Things and machine learning to smart manufacturing robots. Industry 4.0 is the next stage of the manufacturing industry. It is for this reason, that we have to embrace it.

At the core of this concept is the problem of massive collections of data and the communications therein. Connected devices and smart manufacturing machines have given engineers the capability to monitor their manufacturing plants in real time. It has given design engineers the ability to take design for manufacturability just that much further. While it may be beneficial, all of this data can scare us, it’s simply too much to consider in most cases. Although it comes under the guise of benefit, it can often lead to further work for us in the technical profession. This fear is realized through the data of IoT and connected manufacturing implementation. A recent survey found that only 31.4% of manufacturers have implemented IoT and only 55% view it as strategically important. Looking at Industry 4.0 as a whole, only 20% of engineers felt like Industry 4.0 was a high priority. These numbers are especially meaningful when you consider that 89% of those in the technical field consider Industry 4.0 to be the biggest way to improve productivity in manufacturing. Our fears are holding us back from being early adopters.

It is this dilemma that has lead to the emergence of the next generation of industry and the future of manufacturing. Machine learning and even rudimentary AI systems can make quick work of manufacturing data, thus acting as a digital interpreter of “big data.”

One of the ways in which AI systems can handle big data is through the use of a tool called a “digital twin.” This is the practice of creating an artificially intelligent model of a physical system that can stay up to date with their physical counterpart. In essence, this allows a machine learning algorithm to analyze and provide relevant data to the engineer.

Most recognize that connected manufacturing is where the industry is headed. We are moving away from closed loop design in manufacturing. Most may recognize that if they aren’t embracing connected manufacturing now, they will have to in the future. How we are able to manage big data will become the backbone of future connectivity’s success. As engineers, we must recognize that understanding Industry 4.0 and the technologies within will act as the bridge to future manufacturing success.

Big data shouldn’t cause a big scare simply because it just isn’t that big anymore. Industry 4.0 is allowing us as engineers to understand, interpret, and most importantly, innovate.

The Next Generation of Industry for the Engineer

Whether you find yourself sitting behind a desk designing products all day or on the manufacturing floor innovating production first-hand, it’s only natural to want to continue on with what you know best. We get attached to our engineering workflows and this bond can often keep us from embracing future innovation.

The next generation of industrial manufacturing for the engineer is going to look a little different. The effects of current shifts will be widespread, but most significantly, Industry 4.0 will radicalize how we design for manufacturability. Through connected technology, we gain the ability for interoperability, information clarity, technical assistance, and decentralized data management. Each of these aspects of Industry 4.0 will change how we design.

Interoperability allows us to see real-time feedback from the production of our designs and allows us as engineers to decrease our design-production-feedback loop.

Information clarity allows us to access systems and manufacturability easily with the aid of machine learning.

Technical assistance allows us to gain insight from tools like generative design while also engineering alongside machine learning manufacturing algorithms.

Decentralized data management, perhaps most significantly, allows us to monitor all of the prior advances without the traditional restraints of manufacturing and implement optimizations where needed.

The next generation of industry for the engineer will advance through these 4 new-founded manufacturing abilities. As engineers, we have to be willing to accept these changes.

From Industry 4.0 to Engineer 4.0

Up until this point, we’ve been fairly abstract with the discussion of the future of making things. We understand that Industry 4.0 will impact us, but the concrete steps we can take have been left a little vaguer. Realizing the lurking innovation held inside of Industry 4.0 methodology is the first step, actively innovating our current workflows is the next.

To transform ourselves into the “Engineer 4.0,” ready for the next round of manufacturing innovation, we must investigate, adapt, and optimize.

Investigation is the beginning of our practical steps keeping ourselves and our companies from being left behind. Each engineer has a relevant field and a relevant manufacturing niche. Investigation is key in determining which Industry 4.0 technology will be advantageous to you and your workflows. As a whole, the technologies of the modern connected manufacturing age will all advance our capabilities, but blind adoption can hinder true innovative capability.

Once we have investigated and identified how our industry can benefit and will shift through Industry 4.0, we have to start adapting. Similarly, with the cloud and other business trends, the early adopters of Industry 4.0 will likely be rewarded for their courage in jumping into such a new space. Actively adapting ourselves to this connected climate will allow us to stay relevant – perhaps even grow into significance if we aren’t already.

Lastly, as with every engineer’s workflow, we have to optimize our innovation. Initial innovation usually is found somewhere in the “desirable” and “possible” realm. It is our job as engineers to take this initial innovation to our manufacturing brought about by Industry 4.0 technology and shift it upward to the “required” range. If we optimize new connected technology into the “required” category for our own engineering before the industry, when the industry does adapt, we are seen as innovators and are readily prepared.

Right now, industry 4.0 can be seen as an engineering and manufacturing buzzword, reminiscent of 3D printing and generative design in the past. The modern question facing the industry now, however, seems to be not if Industry 4.0 is coming, but rather just how quickly will it get here.

In order to be at the top of our game as engineers, as innovators, we must become early adopters or risk being left behind in the future of making things.

Sources: Scoop, Mckinsey, Strategy-Business, Forbes

Images: [1], [2]

Trevor is a civil engineer (B.S.) by trade and an accomplished writer with a passion for inspiring everyone with new and exciting technologies. He is also a published children’s book author and the producer for the YouTube channel Concerning Reality.


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