The world around us is a complex abundance of cutting-edge technology and consistent adaptation. Every aspect of our daily lives, whether at home or at work, are interwoven with unavoidable technological aids. The age of automation is upon us and digital industries are thriving within this new-age revolution. But what does it mean for the workplace?

The interactions between customers, workers and employees have been reimagined to fit the new-era mould, but what changes have industries had to undertake to keep up with these fast-moving developments? As more and more people, companies and industries find themselves swept up in the digital wave, it is important to understand how, and in what ways, these industries adapt to imminent, unavoidable change. Retail, publishing and banking are amongst the first industries to fully recognise the digital transformation. In the UK specifically, internet transactions account for roughly 1/5 of retail sales, a sharp rise since 2008 when internet transactions represented just 1/20.

Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 has become the colloquialism for what many have defined as ‚The Fourth Industrial Revolution‘. Industry 4.0 is fundamentally about connectivity and communication – idealizing a future where smart devices are able to communicate and make decisions in the best interests of the company or business.

In terms of manufacturing transformation, digitalization represents a combination of traditional manufacturing processes that are upgraded with modernized, cutting-edge technologies – working in tandem to bolster the driving force of the manufacturing industry, dealing with inadequacies and efficiency issues along the way. This is arguably a crucial development that manufacturing giants should be welcoming with open arms as it allows them to reduce downtime, accidents and waste. Furthermore, customer satisfaction technologies could revolutionize the somewhat static nature of current factories – the ability to predict trends and utilize customer data could effectively launch the industry into the digital age of success and prosperity.

The main point of Industry 4.0 is interconnectivity. In a world where, socially, we have never been more globally connected to one another, why should the industry and manufacturing circles be any different?

A key transformation for the manufacturing industry has been the recent introduction of sensors. These sensors are able to effectively track employee and business processes 24/7, creating a data set more vivid and descriptive than any previous spreadsheet. Digital transformation has made it easier to streamline services and adapt to ever-changing customer demand. Whether by choice or by force, industry 4.0 is here.

Smart manufacturing

An umbrella term for the wide range of integration and technological adaptation that is representative of changing manufacturing trends, smart manufacturing generally incorporates data analytics, machine learning, big data and AI to drastically re-invent basic industrial processes. A major aspect of this is Cobotics, whereby humans and robots work alongside one another in a factory setting to boost productivity. One example is the Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR), which assists humans working on assembly lines in a factory to increase productivity and efficiency. At EP, we have developed an AMR to improve production efficiency on a forklift truck production line. You can see the AMR, and Cobotics, in action.

So what does this integration achieve. Perhaps a sense of transparency and efficiency that predicts errors that can be avoided, or revolutionizing the manner in which manufacturers deal with customer demands. Whether quicker development or customer-data driven processes, digital transformation has birthed a new intelligence within manufacturing, one based around machine learning rather than human cooperation.

An example of this is EP’s Telematics system, which allows customers to use data to manage a fleet of forklift trucks. From a piece of software on a computer or tablet, materials handling managers are able to track the location of trucks in real-time, remotely detect any technical faults with a truck, check the battery condition, and much more. This allows managers to spot any potential issues with a forklift before they happen, and fix them before they break down, preventing any potential disruption before it can occur. 

Not too long ago, the smart-factory could have been plucked straight out of a dystopian sci-fi nightmare. However, the future has arrived and must be embraced. A key cornerstone in global digitalization is IoT (Internet of Things), which refers to the billions of data-sharing devices that allow for new spheres of data processing to influence industry and even globalized patterns. By using cloud computing alongside new data analytics, factory owners are able to implement digital processes that improve safety, decrease costs and downtime, and predict factory damage or failure, all through the clever use of sensors and integrated communication processes.

Smart manufacturing doesn’t just help with factory processes and, as briefly touched on previously, hugely revolutionizes the way manufacturers interact with customers. The days of customer surveys or market research as we know it are over – the new sphere of internet knowledge can do so much more.

Manufacturers can now adapt to search patterns in order to react to client needs and emerging trends. By recognizing demand, factory owners are able to manage production levels. Similarly, algorithms can decide where a factory should be, its staff, and everything in between. IoT has completely changed the way in which the industry interacts with the world around it.

As we continue to embrace Industry 4.0 and the digital revolution, we will continue to bolster the powers of IoT. More devices mean more interconnectedness and higher levels of information sharing. However, with smart manufacturing comes a smarter workforce. Data-driven manufacturing is something the industry has never seen before, let alone dealt with and adapted to. Companies that have to change their ways may also have to adapt their workforce – will the factory workers of the future be tech-savvy specialists?

While many companies are trying to adapt to the digital atmosphere, some are a few steps ahead and are already setting a fine example. Here are a few examples of technologies and factories that are out in front in the race for smart manufacturing.

AMRs

Last but certainly not least is the use of autonomous guided vehicles, or even more so, the introduction of AMRs (autonomous mobile robots). These epitomize the power of Industry 4.0. Moving through factories with pace and purpose, AMRs are characteristic of state-of-the-art technologies that are specific to manufacturing. Ingrained intelligence ensures the avoidance of obstacles and the use of light signals to dictate intention. At EP, we are well aware of the potential of AMRs to revolutionize manufacturing and have begun developing our own products within this space. We hope to have products on the market soon, but in the meantime, you can find out more here.

The above examples are only a fraction of Industry 4.0’s ability, creating an alluring and promising vision of the future. Revolutionary data-sharing apparatus is driving industries worldwide into new areas of discovery and new limits in terms of efficiency and productivity.

However, development never stops. Once manufacturers have embraced and adapted to Industry 4.0, 5.0 will be right around the corner. No longer dependent on machine interconnectivity, Industry 5.0 shines the light back on human involvement in a collaborative vision known as ‚cobotics‚.

We do not know what the future holds, but based on where we are now, it is clear that we are headed for a cloud-based future, where diagnostics and analytical data are dealt with before even reaching human eyes; where a machine knows more about logistical operations than the employees‘ themselves. Or perhaps things will change with industry 5.0… only time will tell.