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Industry 4.0? What’s That All About?

By: , Posted on: May 14, 2018

My social media feeds are full of enthusiasts for something called “Industry 4.0”. Is there really a fourth industrial revolution going on? If so, it seems that these four revolutions were powered by respectively: water (and later steam), electricity, digital technologies and hot air.

To some people, the term covers every novel digital or manufacturing technology, (real or imagined). Blockchain, simulation, the internet of things, cybersecurity, cloud computing, additive manufacturing, 3D printing, designer babies, nanotechnology, Web 2.0, advanced materials, cyber-physical systems, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, big data, system integration, autonomous vehicles and robots, facial recognition, flying cars, personal jetpacks, transwarp drives, holodecks and matter replicators, it’s all in there. Well, maybe not quite all, I added a few things.

Anyway, the latest claim that we are having a fourth industrial revolution originated in Germany around 2011. Their “Industrie 4.0” was a research program to do with “smart factories”. It was not a catch all term for neophilia.

This is not the first time a fourth industrial revolution has been announced. In 1940 Albert Carr claimed that “modern communications” (what, radio?) would cause it. In 1948 it was going to be brought about by nuclear energy. In 1955 it was going to be electronics that turned the world on its ear. In the 1970s, it was to be “the computer age”, in 1986, the “information age”.

This list reminds me most strongly of the stock market crashes associated with speculation about new forms of communication. None of them actually brought about a revolution of anything approaching the magnitude of the shift from handloom to mill, or from horse to steam. The chronological list I have given seems to me clearly indicative of an evolution of technology, repeatedly trumpeted by marketers as a revolution, rather than part of the gradual advance of technology-based industry. That this provides something for research grant applications to hang a claim of societal impact upon can’t hurt.

But hype and speculation aside, what is new about computer controlled factories? Nothing. The claim is that “Industrie 4.0” will allow factories to automatically optimize themselves. But this is nothing new either: “Digital Manufacturing” was the 1970s iteration of this idea, then there was “Computer Integrated Manufacturing” in the 1990s, “Digital Factory” in 2000, “Factory 2.0” in 2005 and “Smart Factory” in 2007. None of these turned out to be revolutions or put “Industry 3.0” out of business. They have all been forgotten, unless we are going to count “Digital Manufacturing” as the third industrial revolution, itself a contentious idea. If we are, the so called fourth revolution is double-counting.

Ignoring problems of nomenclature, what problem is “Industrie 4.0” solving? The problem of engineers. If self-optimizing factories are produced, the engineers who presently optimize them are going to be surplus to requirements. In future, every barista will have a six-sigma green belt. But these technologies are problematic. The internet of things in particular presently has grave security problems. Simply connecting factories to the internet makes them vulnerable to espionage, cyberattack and sabotage.  Last August, Saudi petrochemical facilities were subjected to cyberattacks which disabled safety controllers. Only poor coding by the attackers prevented very serious consequences.

So, the concept of Industry 4.0 is a great marketing tool, for both industry and academia, but to the extent that it means anything, there are a lot of issues to resolve before it even works. If it can be made to work, will it be a revolution like the spinning jenny? I think not. This is just another marketing breakthrough, like the GFX-100.

Read more articles from Sean Moran, The Voice of Chemical Engineering

Professor Sean Moran is a Chartered Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he coordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

Sean’s latest books are also available to order on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code STC317 at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!


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