The world that we know and live in today has undergone four distinct epochs characterized by revolutions that fundamentally altered the material aspects of human civilization. Driven by the power of machines, these revolutions have been grouped together under an umbrella term called ‘Industrial Revolution’ and the sector that these sweeping changes influenced was manufacturing. The first phase (1780s to 1850s)witnessed the invention of steam- and water-based manufacturing, applying principles of mechanical engineering. The second phase(1870s to 1970s) sawfull scale deployment of electricity in factories and plants was the main feature of this era, leading to the invention of the assembly line. The third phase(1970s to Present) was marked by the rapid rise of information technology and the introduction of automation tools. The final, present phase can be summed up in one word: Industry 4.0.
Industry 4.0: Leveling Up Manufacturing
The buzzword today in the universe of science and technology is ‘Industry 4.0’. So what exactly is this phenomena? In his path-breaking book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Professor Klaus Schwab enunciates the idea of Industry 4.0. According to him, the fourth industrial revolution features new-age and futuristic technologies and ideas that involve efficient fusion of human thought with the physical and virtual worlds.
The European Parliament provides a narrower, but more pointed understanding of the concept – Industry 4.0 is a process that will transform the design, operations, and overall dynamics of manufacturing systems across the globe. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, recognized the potential of Industry 4.0 when she stated that this technological marvel will overhaul the existing manufacturing systems and processes. The true potential of Industry 4.0, however, is revealing itself through the power of the internet, more precisely, the Internet of Things or IoT.
Artificial Intelligence: The Heart and Soul of IoT
The Internet of Things (IoT) boasts of a prodigious history. However, its story cannot be fully appreciated unless the history of a technology, intricately linked to IoT, is understood: Artificial Intelligence or AI. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Estonian Diplomat Baron Schilling conceived the world’s first telegraph to enable distance communication.
In 1833, two German scientists, Wilhelm Weber and Carl Gauss, invented the first electromagnetic telegraph of the world to communicate over a distance of around 1200 meters. The year 1844 saw the creation of the Morse Code by the American inventor Samuel Morse which he transmitted using the telegraph. During the second decade of the 20th century, the world was introduced to the term “wireless”, coined by the much-acclaimed (and deservedly so) the Serbian-American engineer Nikola Tesla.
The turning point for this technology occurred in 1950s when Alan Turing, the controversial British mathematician, published his ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ article in the Oxford Mind journal. It was at this point in time that the seed of Artificial Intelligence (AI) was planted in minds of scientists, engineers, and technology pioneers in the western world. But, the world was still to remain bereft of the wonders of IoT for the next 50 years or so.
IoT: The Spawning
While technologies surrounding IoT were developing rapidly after the 1970s, IoT itself, as a tangible technology, was born in 2008. The Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group opines that sometime between 2008 and 2009 the possibility of connecting things or materials with each other rather than with people started gaining traction, leading to the coining of the term ‘Internet of Things’.
In 2008 itself, a conference comprising of representatives from industry and academia was convened in Zurich. Organized by the University of St. Gallen, ETH Zurich, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the meeting aimed at building theoretical and practical frameworks to understand the implications of IoT and associated technologies.
IoT received a major fillip in 2015 when two members of the US House of Representatives, Darrell Issa and Suzan DelBene, teamed up to form a Congressional Caucus on IoT. Clearly, the hoopla surrounding IoT cannot be overstated and the entry of technology giants has significantly broadened the horizons of this field.
A Cornucopia of Innovation Opportunities
Technology is a great disruptive force, probably the strongest of the loT. The Internet of Things is not different. In 2008, the US National Intelligence Council came out with a list called Disruptive Civil Technologies wherein IoT ranked sixth. Innovators of the 21st century are fully exploiting the potential of IoT and providing wholesome solutions to the manufacturing sector. For example, in November 2019, ABB’s robotic technology was utilized by B&R, ABB’sRobotics and Discrete Automation business division.
B&R announced that it would be fully integrating ABB’s robots with its machine automation platform to provide builders with a holistic IIoT solution. An exciting collaboration was announced in April 2019 when Microsoft and BMW joined forces to create the Open Manufacturing Platform (OMP), heralding the next era of IIoT. Structured on Microsoft’s Azure platform, the community initiative is aimed at making available smart factory tools and solutions across the entire automotive manufacturing spectrum.
In the same month, Siemens expanded its Digital Enterprise product line to further revolutionize manufacturing operations. One of the company’s prominent announcements was the scaling up of its MindSphere IoT system to make shop-floor working in factories more efficient. These, and many more such innovations, are redefining contours and pushing the limits of human-machine interaction.
A Panacea for All Ills?
Despite the breathtaking pace of its development, it must be remembered that IoT and technologies related to it need to be carefully regulated and it is by no means a one-shot solution for the ills plaguing the world today. Unbridled spread and adoption of IoT technologies can create situations that may threaten the security and privacy of common people. As Klaus Schwab puts it, failure of governments to reign in new technologies will not just pose security risks, but can also worsen inequality in the world and fragment societies.