"We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society."
The fourth industrial revolution – also known as Industrie 4.0, smart manufacturing and the Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) – is "characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres." This revolution will have far-reaching consequences across sectors and, ultimately, it will make life easier on all fronts by streamlining processes, reducing human labour, furthering global interconnectedness – and leading to advancements we can’t yet imagine.
However, as is often the case with great change, the road to success is a bumpy one. For instance, low-skilled workers face job losses as automation takes over; advances in technology – such as artificial intelligence – raise a whole host of complex questions; and the current way of doing things becomes defunct.
Nevertheless, we are continuing to progress towards the realisation of the fourth industrial revolution. And within the manufacturing and engineering sector, the benefits are already beginning to make themselves known.
Industrie 4.0 within electronics manufacturing
In electronics manufacturing, automation is employed in a number of key situations, including:
- When high levels of accuracy and precision are required
- In difficult or dangerous work environments
- Where monotony occurs
- When personalisation and configuration are needed
Both original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and electronics manufacturing services (EMS) providers are creating new revenue streams through the development and manufacture of an expansive range of new products and systems that enable industrial automation. As a result, efficiency is increased, costs are reduced, and competitive advantage is achieved.
So what does this look like in practice? Let’s take the third scenario listed above: where monotony occurs. You might have an individual on your line putting labels on boxes all day. However, with automation, this task could be carried out by a robot. Not only would the robot be more efficient, but the employee could focus on more complex work. In the "smart" factories of tomorrow, the emphasis will be on adding-value and workers will be highly prized for their specialist skills and ability to innovate.
Another example shows how automation can be implemented when high levels of accuracy and precision are required. Writing for Politico, Joe Kaeser, president and CEO of Siemens AG, explains how Siemens manufactured an automation solution for one of its customers: "What we achieved in close collaboration with our partner Festo and our customer Optima is nothing less than a milestone in machine building. We created a filling machine for perfume bottles that can produce up to 56,000 variants – down to a lot size of one – at stable engineering and product costs."
In this instance, automation enables the needs of many different customers to be met without creating excessive costs and labour.
The bigger picture
Globally, China is leading the industrial automation charge, as the world's biggest manufacturing power. In 2015, GE and China Telecom announced that they had formed a strategic agreement to accelerate Industrial Internet deployment in China. The Industrial Internet is a term coined by GE that essentially describes Industrie 4.0: "The industrial Internet draws together fields such as machine learning, big data, the Internet of Things and machine-to-machine communication to ingest data from machines, analyse it (often in real-time), and use it to adjust operations."
In a statement, GE chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt said: "As we invent the next industrial era, the combination of hardware and software is helping to redefine growth opportunities worldwide. We believe the Industrial Internet provides an effective path for China to upgrade its infrastructure industries. We look forward to working with the regulators, industry partners and customers to participate in China’s massive industry transformation."
With Tier 1 EMS companies such as Foxconn situated in China, these plans are already starting to have a ripple effect across electronics manufacturing. The BBC reported back in May 2016 that since September 2014, 505 factories across Dongguan, in the Guangdong province, have invested 4.2bn yuan (£430m) in robots, aiming to replace thousands of workers.
Automation is the future of electronics manufacturing and its influence will only increase.