It goes without saying that technology shapes our world. With how integral technology is in our lives, it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without it. It affects the way we work, how we entertain ourselves and how we communicate with each other. The process in which we were afforded the access to these new technologies and products wasn’t a linear progression of things becoming better and better, but rather it was series of booms that drastically changed the way industry was able to produce and provide goods to people. These are called industrial revolutions. And we are in the middle of one of those booms right now.
The first Industrial Revolution was the period between 1760 and 1820 and it ushered in the transition from hand production methods to water- and steam-powered mechanized production. This was the time when we started having machines do the work for us, both in the fields and in mechanized factories. This led to the creation of a strong middle class as the standard of living increased steadily and people began to move to urban areas to find work. The first Industrial Revolution and the creation of machines and processes to maximize production set the stage for future innovation.
The Second Industrial Revolution, also known as the Technological Revolution, refers to the period between 1871 and 1914 when the installation of extensive railroad and telegraph networks allowed for the faster transfer of people, goods, and ideas. Along with this came the transition to electric power which enabled mass production and led to the development of the modern production line. Often attributed to Henry Ford, the modern production or assembly line is still the foundation of many manufacturing operations today. Although this was a time of great economic growth and increased productivity, many factory workers found themselves out of work as their jobs were replaced by machines.
The next phase was the Third Industrial Revolution, commonly known as the Digital Revolution, where electronics and information technology were used to automate production. Taking place after the end of two world wars in the latter half of the 20th century, the Digital Revolution was marked by the increased adoption of digital computers and digital record-keeping, with binary code and supercomputers gradually becoming part of everyday life. Unlike previous Industrial Revolutions, the Digital Revolution was unique because machines were becoming less dependent on human power.
It is this increased autonomy of machines that has led us to where we are now: the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Industry 4.0, as it is often referred to as, is based on four central design principles:
Interconnectivity: Thanks to the evolution of wireless communication technology and the Internet of Things, we can connect machines, devices, sensors, and people better than ever before. This interconnection enables human users to collect huge levels of data effortlessly from all points in the manufacturing process.
Information transparency: Building on the foundation of interconnectivity, the increased transparency of information provides users with vast amounts of useful information. This allows human users to analyze data, identify key areas that can benefit from innovation and optimization and make data-driven decisions.
Decentralized decisions: Interconnectivity and information transparency work in conjunction to combine local and global data and make information more easily accessible to human decision-makers. More informed decision-making leads to an increase in overall productivity.
Technical assistance: Rather than depending on humans to manage machines, which is time-consuming and can lead to errors, Industry 4.0 enables people to become problem solvers and decision-makers. By using technology and data to collect information and support human users, they can make informed decisions quickly to resolve issues more effectively.
The development and rapid progression of these four principles is what is driving the current industrial revolution. The biggest companies have already begun to embrace them and as it begins to spread throughout all industries and businesses of all sizes, we will begin to truly see the effects of this revolution. Where will it lead and how will it affect our lives? It is hard to tell.
One thing is for sure, everything will become more connected. One of the foundations of Industry 4.0 is the Internet of Things (IoT). The Internet of Things connects people, devices, and data to create a powerful network of information and this network will provide insights and instant information of the world around us not just in our day to day lives, but also for companies with customer analytics and real time data for manufacturing processes.
On top of IoT, another trend that we are watching play out during this Fourth Industrial Revolution, is the rise of Artificial Intelligence. With all this extra data and information that the internet of things provides, it is not just humans that will be making use of it, but machines that will be able to gather and synthesize the information and solve problems instantaneously.
Where does that leave humans? If machines are gathering information and making decisions, how does a human fit in to this whole process? Well luckily, it doesn’t look so bleak. A 2018 study from McKinsey Global Institute found that about half of the activities (not jobs) carried out by workers could be automated. However, it is important to note that the same study found that about 15 percent of the global workforce, or around 400 million workers, could be displaced by automation between 2016 and 2030.
Industrial Revolutions bring drastic change and I think it is apparent that we live in a time undergoing great change. Just like the first Industrial Revolution introduce new machines to do the work for humans, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will do the same. How will it play out? We will have to wait and see.