Industry 4.0: evolution or revolution?

Industry 4.0: evolution or revolution?

There’s an ongoing debate if Industry 4.0 (or Smart Manufacturing) is a revolution or just an evolution. In more and more conferences speakers debate on that and bring arguments to one side or the other. Beside the fact that I personally believe the discussion is not very relevant (our world is changing and we need to adapt as fast as possible to survive or excel), it’s somehow interesting to analyze the various components that have revolutionary or evolutionary aspects.
First I think it’s useful to define the difference between evolution and revolution. In my mind, there are two ways to look at it.
One is the ability to create something totally new, unexpected and at the end unrequested.
To give you a well-known example, let’s consider Microsoft vs. Apple. Microsoft was in the last decades one of the most evolutionary companies in the market. They usually start with an idea and make incremental changes over time. Consider any tool of the Office suite for example. It was progressively changed since its release. Each new update brings some new features, but the latest Word is fundamentally the same as the first one. Apple on the other side, in its history releases several “unexpected” products. Starting with the Macintosh back in the 80’s they were able to anticipate or sometimes create the consumer need. One of the better examples is the iPod, that dramatically changed the consumer habits in consuming music and the music industry itself.
The second way takes into consideration the speed at which changes happen. In chemistry, an explosion differs from a reaction just for the speed it happens. It is a fast (almost sudden) exothermic reaction that transforms components and generates energy.
I believe the transformation we are looking at in the industry is something similar. We are observing a transformation (evolution) that is happening so rapidly that it’s almost a revolution and, in parallel with the chemistry example, is generating a lot of energy in the market. Like the explosion it needs to be controlled to produce the expected results, otherwise the risk is that the damages exceed the advantages.
But the scenario is not so homogeneous and what we are really looking at is a combination of revolutionary and evolutionary trends.
The additive technologies (like 3D printing) are revolutionary. They are disrupting the way things are built and creating new opportunities both in terms of things that can be produced and business models. They are a significant part of the “next-shoring” trend. Personalized production is moving closer to customers, shortening the supply chain, reducing costs and contributing to reduce the negative impact on the planet related to long transportation.
Co-creation or embedding the customer in the supply chain is revolutionary. It’s dramatically changing the paradigm of how things are invented and designed. It’s not the invention capability of few people that can create something new, but it’s the analysis of usage data that can reveal behavior patterns that bring to better or new products.
The digital thread is evolutionary. It’s a significant improvement of the entire supply chain management, enabling better efficiency and cost reduction, but it’s not a dramatic change of what was done till now. The increased communication speed and the availability of a common data set along the whole supply chain to orchestrate all the chain components can have a big impact, but doesn’t disrupt production or business models.
The usage of robots in inside or outside logistics is evolutionary. Plants in which humans and robots work side by side without the safety barriers of the past are modifying the approach to both production and logistics. Amazon has already flipped the picking principle. It’s not operators that go to the products locations to get what they need to ship, but it’s shelving units that basing on the orders to be shipped move automatically to the employees, who just need to pick the items they need for packaging. Some experiments based on the same philosophy are happening in the operations with products automatically feeding the line stocks based on the production plans and the components availability level in each station.

There are many more examples like the ones I mentioned that can be taken into consideration to demonstrate that any Industry 4.0 or Smart Manufacturing initiative is at the same time both evolution and revolution. New technological solutions become suddenly available and enable approaches that where not considerable before, other improve much faster than in the past and allow to modify rapidly the way things are done both technologically and business wise. We are in a jeopardized situation full of opportunities to be taken. This is more important than defining if Industry 4.0 is the fourth industrial revolution or evolution.

Luigi De Bernardini
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