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    Sustainability now!

    How the new industrial revolution will help

    Industry 4.0 is upon us.


    Industry 4.0 is a manufacturing regime characterized by the heavy use of automation, data analytics, next-generation sensor tech, and machine learning apps embedded in “cyber-physical" industrial platforms. The result is a smart industrial system in which data science leads to tangible results on the shop floor — a system that functions with unprecedented levels of efficiency, flexibility, and suppleness.


    Industry 4.0 promises to generate a massive new wave of human productivity. But every previous chapter in industry's ongoing evolution did that, too, from Industry 1.0 (the original steam-powered “Industrial Revolution" that we learned about in school), to Industry 2.0 (which saw the advent of the assembly line and mass electrification), to Industry 3.0 (which was powered by analog computing). The difference is that how we make things in this latest evolution should be dramatically more environmentally favorable.


    This promises to be a coup for human ingenuity, severing the link between productivity and negative environmental impact. But what exactly would an Industry 4.0 economy look like? The following notes offer a glimpse.

    An economy that runs in circles


    Industry 4.0 will be the era when “circular manufacturing" displaces our current linear manufacturing model. Emblematic Industry 4.0 technologies like machine learning and the Internet of Things (IoT) will help in this regard.

    In a circular industrial model, everything is different. No more will economic logic decree a wasteful "linear" progress that starts with extraction, proceeds through the manufacturing process, ends in consumption, and finally creates waste products that stuff our planet's landfills. Rather, we'll work towards a way of making things where waste is minimized and resources are conserved and re-used. And we'll do this ideally without paying more than we would have in the profligate era of “linear" manufacturing as we've known it.

    This might strike some as wishful thinking. Yet sensor tech and other monitoring tools associated with the IoT are creating efficiencies that industrial managers of the past never dreamed of.

    Sensors monitoring industrial turbines for speed, friction, temperature, and the like can now generate data that can help in tuning those turbines for ideal functioning. Whole industrial platforms connected to smart power grids can now work in response to those grids' capacities, ramping up or scaling down production rates based on optimal power availability. For that matter, those grids can integrate solar and other renewable power sources with a new level of effectiveness.

    Those are just several solutions that connected industrial technology makes possible. Multiplied exponentially, solutions like these will lead to a far more efficient industrial system.

    When Industry 4.0 goes low-tech

    Not that every element that characterizes Industry 4.0 is high-tech. Sometimes it's merely a function of a higher environmental consciousness, coupled with the bottom-line realization that what's good for the earth can also be good for business.


    Witness the growing popularity of take-back and refurbishment programs these days — in the apparel industry, for instance. That resource-intensive industry has proven itself a leader in these programs, which form a core pillar of the circular economy.


    Such a program might make it worth a consumer's while to return worn garments to their manufacturer, which will recycle the materials or even bundle them up for reuse elsewhere in the economy. A representative of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation ably explained the dynamic at work at a 2018 event dedicated to the circular economy: “A t-shirt can be used as a t-shirt, then can be sold as second-hand. If it's not needed as t-shirt anymore, you can use it as [stuffing for] an armchair or a sofa. And then the third use would be you can use it as insulation [in] a house."

    Obviously, take-back/refurbishment/upcycling is relevant beyond the clothing trade, too. Heavy industry concerns like Caterpillar will also take back their tractors and other products and refurbish them for consumers. The result is less environmental impact—but also savings for consumers.

    The factory in your neighborhood's future

    We live in an era of offshoring — right?

    Actually, it's not as simple as that. It might seem fanciful to imagine that manufacturing facilities will again exist in the way they did a hundred years ago—integrated into the fabric of neighborhoods in the so-called developed world. After all, we've long seen them banished to locations thousands of miles from the places where the goods they make will mostly be used.

    But it might not be as fanciful as it seems.

    According to one vision of our Industry 4.0 future, the “re-onshoring" of manufacturing is inevitable. Under the pressure of new technical capacities in manufacturing, our age of standardized production will yield to an age in which we build in small batches, and to order. “Scaled customization" will be the buzz phrase of this new manufacturing regime. And this new regime, in which regional trade flows replace global ones and smaller manufacturing facilities replace mammoth factories, will be a greener one.

    The as-a-service model pays off

    If that's still somewhat down the line as a significant phenomenon, the as-a-service economic model is paying green dividends right now.


    Most of us who work in offices are familiar with the as-a-service model. It's the one according to which many employers buy computing services these days. No longer does such an organization purchase new hardware every few years, and maintain an expensive IT department to keep it running. Now, for a monthly fee, a provider provides the company with hardware and software, and updates that software via the cloud when necessary.


    This model is adaptable to other areas. Take lighting. According to the lighting-as-a-service model, a manufacturer would opt out of the expensive and resource-intensive chore of establishing its own facility lighting system. Instead, it would contract with a provider for lighting services and be done with the matter, at least as it involves doing anything more than enjoying the benefits of effectively lit warehouses and workspaces.


    Meanwhile, the lighting provider will have every financial incentive to make sure that its lighting system functions sustainably. It will make sure, for example, that it puts to use smart lighting that lights workspaces and other areas according to changing occupancy and activity needs, and lets them go dark when they're unused.


    This saves on hardware wear-and-tear, not to mention on energy costs. To do anything else would be bad for business.

    Sustainability in the air

    Sustainability is in the air these days. The much-discussed shift to automatic driving, for example, is one of the emblematic initiatives of our moment. But it's also a green one, one that should sharply reduce the number of cars in our world, and maybe even phase out the resource-wasteful car culture as we've come to know it.

    Some of the emblematic business successes of our era are either intrinsically green or working towards being so. Uber, for example, vaunts its commitment to making the automated driving future happen (even if that future might be delayed). Similarly, Airbnb’s hospitality business model involves repurposing already-existing properties as hostelries, rather than building new ones, with all of the resource usage that that would imply.

    The latest industrial revolution, Industry 4.0, is emerging in this exciting context. Unlike previous revolutions, this one promises to make our relationship with our environment more harmonious, not more exploitative. If we manage things right, Industry 4.0 will usher in a paradigm where we minimize the external costs of the growth we desire—and where the crucial project of managing our planet's resources will progress in tandem with our economic needs.

    About the author

    Headshot of Ton van de Wiel
    Ton van de Wiel is the global segment lead for industrial end-users within Signify and co-founder of Interact. With over twenty years of business experience, he now works to shape tomorrow’s world of smart manufacturing and warehousing as enabled via connected lighting.

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