Industry 4.0 is upon us: A manufacturing regime characterized by smart production systems powered by data and artificial intelligence, and putting to work such transformational technologies as robotics, augmented reality, and, perhaps most importantly, the Internet of Things (IoT).
Like its antecedents, this fourth industrial revolution — driven by info-tech, as the first three were driven by steam, electricity, and the first generations of computing, respectively — will result in a radically faster and more efficient way to make things. It will also render our world cleaner, and our economies more sustainable.
And if Industry 4.0 will take years to fully mature, a number of its most startling innovations are already online. Take, as one example, the crucial matter of equipment and infrastructure maintenance. For generations, that maintenance has been a reactive activity, when it wasn't akin to divining the future. Managers would scramble to catch up with developments that had already occurred; or else, armed with data (in amounts and varieties that would strike us as quaint today), they might posit when a piece of gear was likely to need repair or replacement.
But while age is a factor in equipment health, an industrial facility's environmental conditions and the way it puts machinery to use matter just as much, if not more. Studies have found that 82 percent of equipment failures follow no discernible age-related pattern. That means that when factories replace parts merely according to a schedule, they tend to lose money. One study found that 30 percent of preventive maintenance activities took place over-frequently.
Beyond their inefficiency, non-optimal maintenance strategies can reduce a plant's productive capacity by between 5 and 20 percent, according to a Deloitte report.
And then there's the unplanned downtime that occurs when equipment problems grind a plant to a halt. That downtime costs industrial manufacturers an estimated $50 billion a year.