Comment: Welcome to Industry 4.0 week

It’s industry 4.0 week on The Engineer, which means that for the whole of this week (25th – 29th March) we’ll be focusing heavily on industry’s much-discussed - and often-hyped - fourth revolution.

Whilst there still isn’t widespread agreement on what to actually call it (take your pick from Industry 4.0; Industrie 4.0, I4.0, I4R or the Industrial IOT) there is growing consensus that the core concept, which hinges around the deployment of automation technologies and smart use of data, is critical to the future of manufacturing operations large and small.

This hasn’t always been the case. When German industrial giants like Siemens first began talking about “Industrie 4.0” just under a decade ago, many were sceptical about its relevance to the wider manufacturing industry.  Others questioned whether it’s even possible to identify a revolution when it’s actually happening, before its long-term impact has become clear. Indeed, the first Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s and early 1800s wasn’t widely described as such until decades later.

But whether it is a revolution, or just the common-sense strategic deployment of new technology, numerous tangible examples of manufacturers reaping its rewards mean that Industry 4.0 is today a far less nebulous concept than it was a decade ago, and much of the early scepticism has been dispelled.

Industry 4.0 technology doesn't necessarily require huge investment as this lathe retrofitted with digital technology illustrates. Image: AMRC

What’s more, there’s a growing understanding that Industry 4.0 technologies are not just for the big firms. As we’ve often reported, it’s the UK’s SME manufacturing heartland that arguably has the most to gain and there’s now a growing understanding that elements of what we might call “industry 4.0” can be deployed at relatively low cost and deliver immediate benefits.

But it’s not all positive news. Despite a slew of reports and studies and concerted effort by government and industry to drive uptake, the UK is nowhere near where it should be in the international industry 4.0 league table: Indeed, it’s currently the only G7 country with a robot density below the world’s average of 73 per 10,000 workers (Germany, in comparison, has 309).

Over the course of this week, we’ll be examining some of the reasons for this as well as hearing from some of those at the forefront of Industry 4.0 in the UK about how the technology is helping to transform manufacturing. Starting with today’s article by Make UK CEO Stephen Phipson, we’ll also be asking what role the productivity enhancing benefits of industry 4.0 could have in helping UK manufacturers weather the storms and uncertainties of Brexit.

Our partner for Industry 4.0 week is a firm perhaps not immediately associated with engineering: global management consultancy Accenture which, through its Industry X.0 offering, is providing a framework to help businesses become more coordinated and strategic about the way in which they invest in digital technologies. We’ll be hearing more from Accenture about how it’s helping to achieve this over the course of the week.

As always, we welcome your comments on what is always an emotive issue.