Defining Industry 4.0 and its Impact on Manufacturing

The following guest post was contributed by Visual Knowledge Share Ltd

“Revolutions” typically denote powerful social movements where existing processes and forms of leadership are replaced in favor of something more desirable. Revolutions mean change – and oftentimes, change brings with it challenges, risk and sacrifice. But change also paves the way for an exciting new future.

Today, we are in the midst of another revolution. A revolution in which one of the most important economic drivers in the world – manufacturing – is undergoing a massive transformation in terms of not only the methods and technology being used to produce everyday objects, but also in terms of the human capital involved in these operations as well.

A History Lesson: The Evolution of Manufacturing

To provide some perspective, let’s start with the First Industrial Revolution. Beginning in the second half of the 18th century, manufacturing processes underwent an incredible modernization. Prior to this, manufacturing was essentially human-powered, meaning completely manual. However, beginning in Great Britain in about 1760, the use of machine and chemical manufacturing processes began to revolutionize how things were made. This mechanization dramatically improved the standard of living for much of the modern world.

The Second Industrial Revolution, which began during the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century, introduced large rail networks, massive steel and iron production, and most importantly, the beginning of electrification. Many of today’s most relied upon technologies – including the internal combustion engine, assembly line and mass production techniques – saw their birth during this period.

Industry 4.0

Firmly planted within the Third Industrial Revolution, which many would argue began in the middle of the 20th century, we’ve experienced a digital revolution, where automation, PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers), robotics and other information technology (IT) computer-controlled systems have removed humans from many manufacturing processes. But today, we’re again at a transitional point in industry. We’re now on the cusp of yet another revolution – Industry 4.0 – an era in which disruptive technologies and trends such as the Internet of Things (IoT), virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) are changing the way we live and work.

Industry 4.0 is really the birth of the Smart Factory, where machine automation becomes highly integrated with data. This VKS blog provides more information on “4 steps for converting to a Smart Factory.”

Integrating machine automation with data typically involves 3 key technologies:

  • Cyber-Physical Systems – A mechanism controlled or monitored by computer-based algorithms, tightly integrated with the internet and its users. In a CPS environment, physical and software components are deeply intertwined.

Industry 4.0
Assembly operator using an integrated torque wrench with VKS Visual Work Instructions

  • Internet of Things (IoT) – The inter-networking of physical devices like vehicles, appliances and buildings, using embedded electronics, sensors and software to enable data collection and sharing across physical devices.
  • Cloud Computing – Internet-based computing that provides shared computer processing resources and data on demand.

Industry 4.0
VKS Cloud or On-Premise Visual Work Instruction Application

Although many manufacturers often feel this leap is “too much too soon,” there are 4 key benefits of the Smart Factory that should convince leaders to begin the transition:

  • InteroperabilityThe ability of machines, devices, sensors and people to connect and communicate with each other via the Internet of Things (IoT).
  • Information Transparency – The ability of information systems to create a virtual copy of the physical world by enriching digital plant models with sensor data. This requires the aggregation of raw sensor data to higher-value context information.
  • Technical Assistance – First, the ability of assistance systems to support humans by aggregating and visualizing information to help make informed decisions and solve urgent problems on short notice. Second, the ability of cyber physical systems to physically support humans by conducting a range of tasks that are unpleasant, exhausting or unsafe.
  • Decentralized Decisions – The ability of cyber physical systems to make decisions on their own and to perform their tasks as autonomously as possible. Only in the case of exceptions, interferences or conflicting goals, are tasks delegated to a higher level.

Converting to a Smart Factory truly is a migration, and like other places around the world where this process is already well underway, Ontario businesses are learning that it won’t happen overnight or without trial and error. There is, however, no alternative option. Ontario has the largest provincial economy in Canada – double that of Quebec – and manufacturing represents a significant portion of that economy. Falling behind the rest of the world in terms of advancement in manufacturing technology will render Ontario less competitive.

Remember, revolutions can be some of the most disruptive change mechanisms, but without them, where would we be? As with all other revolutions, Industry 4.0 will disrupt manufacturing, and likely much more, but if we use history as our guide, it will bring with it a lot of opportunity.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this discussion, where we’ll look at the how many manufacturers are kicking off their Industry 4.0 migration. Their approach can be used as a template for industry in Ontario and Canada as a whole.

How do you feel about Industry 4.0? How do you think engineers can help guide this transition, so that Ontario businesses remain competitive on the global stage?


VKS is a software solution for manufacturers faced with paper-driven shop floor processes that are outdated and of little value to day-to-day operations. VKS helps manufacturers reduce operational costs by facilitating the creation, management and deployment of smart, digital work instructions. Learn more.


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