We witnessed the evolution of the Industry 4.0, known as the fourth industrial revolution, and wonder if encompassing the combination of traditional manufacturing and industrial platforms and practices with the latest smart technology, is still on the cards post Covid-19.
There’s no doubt that the coronavirus has taken its toll on the economy. Millions of people are out of work, and entire industries are facing shutdown, mostly through no fault of their own.
Commentators, therefore, are wondering how all of this will impact the march towards industry 4.0? Will the virus accelerate the transition to intelligent manufacturing and logistics? Or will the economic crisis make it less feasible?
Undoubtedly, the crisis will take its toll on the primary research and development required to flesh out the smart systems envisaged by proponents of the industry 4.0 concept. After months of lockdown, research labs are far behind where they hoped they’d be by this stage. But perhaps more important than the lost time is waning business confidence. Companies don’t feel like they should be ploughing large sums of money into what seems like speculative projects at this time. We’re living in a highly risk-averse environment, one in which the rational thing to do seems to be battening down the hatches.
Despite the doom and gloom, though, the picture isn’t homogenous across the manufacturing industry. Some companies are seeing massive falls in demand for their products, while others are seeing a rise. The surge in demand for bicycles, for instance, is leading to a transformation of the powder coating and drive train industries. Manufacturers in this sector are finding that they have more business than they did before the advent of the crisis.
Industry 4.0 is also essential in the current context for another reason: it removes the need for workers to operate facilities close to each other. Ultimately, proponents of the concept imagine warehouses and factories run by just a handful of maintenance and supervision staff, with machines and robots doing the rest.
Companies are already struggling to convince workers to return to their places of work. Many factory employees don’t want to put themselves or their families at risk of COVID-19, and so they’re reluctant to take roles in the sector. Most would much prefer to be able to conduct their tasks off-site, using sensors to track production lines and plant performance.
Industry 4.0 inexorably leads to this state of affairs. Ultimately, it seeks to remove as much human labour as possible from the production process, freeing it up for other tasks. The current network of intelligent systems in the manufacturing arena will no doubt allow firms to implement some changes immediately (such as keeping control staff off-site).
The coronavirus pandemic, therefore, is not a reason to abandon the idea of implementing industry 4.0. Instead, it makes the case even stronger. Not only is there an economic need to reduce the cost of manufactured goods, but after COVID, a safety need too.
Currently, many manufacturers are focusing on survival, and rightly so. But as demand returns to the economy, that will pass, and many will find that they have viable businesses. When that happens, they’ll start preparing to reduce labour further, hopefully to the point where nobody is at risk of getting sick in the next pandemic.