IoT, Artificial Intelligence, and Smart Manufacturing are just some of the technological innovations that are part of what has been called the 4th Industrial Revolution. We are living in an era of profound transformation, where the world is interconnected, and globalization is no longer an option but a fact that has already transformed our economic system. But what Industry 4.0 innovations are disrupting the global economy, and how did we get to the 4th industrial revolution?
The innovations of the 4th industrial revolution
The 21st century marks the beginning of the 4th industrial revolution, flanked by the 2nd computer revolution. Undoubtedly, most innovations that are changing our habits and customs concern the IT sector and the predominant entry of technologies in our daily private and professional lives. Today, we have reached a point that we can define as no return.
As consumers, we appreciate the ease of online shopping, the ability to choose a product from another state, and the customization that car manufacturers allow us to do on our future cars. At the same time, as employees, we could no longer do without email, data that updates in real-time based on the progress of a project, or contacts with companies 9 hours away by flight.
But what are these disruptive technologies that have changed the way we live and work? Let’s see them together.
The era of Big Data and Cloud storage
In the Era of Digital Transformation, many innovations have contributed to the drastic change taking place. But suppose we want to identify a turning point. In that case, the transition from analog to digital is a point of no return: the transformation of words written on paper to digital data has allowed us to produce, catalog, and organize a massive amount of information.
The main effect of digitization is the exponential increase in data production. In fact, today’s problem is no longer how to acquire and store information but how to associate meaning with the information itself. Big Data has given rise to a twofold need: on the one hand, there is a need for increasingly sophisticated analysis tools and experts who know how to read them; on the other, there is a search for secure and agile data storage spaces.
Thus, people are starting to talk about cloud computing: a shared space where data can be saved and processed quickly. In fact, the information in the virtual area is accessible from any connected device. Work thus becomes more agile and less risky.
The world of the Internet of Things
Collecting and sharing data requires connecting digital devices, objects, and industrial machinery to the network. We are in 2000 when the expression Internet of Things (IoT) was coined, precisely to indicate the communication that takes place between “things.” Not only cell phones, computers but also machinery, light bulbs, and household appliances have become smart. The benefits of this connection for businesses are significant. Performance increases by combining IoT with Edge Computing, where you have the ability to process data close to the source, and Artificial Intelligence.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a discovery that straddles the third and fourth industrial revolutions, but its massive implementation is recent. Beyond the controversies related to replacing the workforce with intelligent machines, AI is the step that will enable autonomous data processing. Software programming, capable of learning through Deep Learning and Machine Learning paradigms, is improving not only the IT industry but also Healthcare, Cybersecurity, and contexts where versatility is a relevant element. We can recognize a face, process a requested action with a voice as is the case, for example, when we talk to the navigator and classify objects. The future developments of this innovation are unimaginable, and Smart Cities are only part of the change that will take place in our world. AI is itself an evolution of automation and robotization: breakthroughs that characterized the third revolution.
The ability to remotely access and share data in real-time is an important value, but it also exposes us to countless intrusion risks. How can we protect ourselves? Here’s where Cybersecurity comes into its own in the fourth revolution. Understanding how to armor Big Data is critical to enable companies to network a valuable resource like sensitive data. The risks generated by the genius minds that populate the dark side of the net, the dark web, have pushed developers toward creating software that can predict threats, address them, and constantly monitor gateways. This is further confirmation that discoveries, innovations, and technologies, in general, are not good or bad. It all depends on how we use them.
The future is Sustainable
What will be the future investments? What will be the goals of researchers? Actually, we’ve been talking about environmental sustainability for a while now, and big companies are already working towards sustainable development. In fact, from industrialization to current technological innovations, our lifestyle has changed for the better. However, the environment cannot counteract the strong impact generated by such a technologically advanced system. Waste, emissions, and resource utilization reach thresholds that are too high in a short period, and the ecosystem cannot sustain them. For that reason, Green Economy faculties are born, generations of Energy Managers are formed, and careful companies choose technologies with a reduced environmental impact. The quality of work has also become an object of research, such as the design of silent factories and the ergonomic study of the office. Only by creating a synergy between Digital Transformation and Sustainability can we live in a green world.
Industry 4.0: How has the business world changed?
Those who experience a revolution on their skin can hardly understand its scope in the meantime. However, the winning companies will be those that begin to familiarize themselves with and implement innovations as soon as possible, adapting their business to the logic of Industry 4.0. Of course, these are changes that take a long time to adapt. It takes time to automate a process, collect data and process it with AI, connect devices large and small to the corporate network. It’s not just a matter of envisioning new ways of working, but also of training resources. The result, however, will more than repay all the sacrifices in terms of cost and efficiency.
The innovations of the 4th revolution are generating changes in supply and demand. Not only the companies are obtaining enormous advantages like the reduction of the costs of production, the improvement of the quality of the job and the possibility to render efficient the processes. There are also the consumers who find themselves with customized products and services, with unprecedented customization.
As with previous revolutions, we cannot know precisely what the future holds and how technological innovations, which follow one another at an impressive speed, will change our lives. However, a look back will help us understand the impact of the new on society and how the effects of each discovery will not always be predictable.
How did we get to the 4th revolution?
First industrial revolution: the birth of factories
Economic history teaches us that events are cyclical, that after a crisis follows an economic boom, and that those periods are fertile ground for revolutions. This is why the first industrial revolution took place in England, which had unprecedented economic wealth between the 18th and 19th centuries. The changes were drastic. Landowners became entrepreneurs, an efficient transportation system was developed, and the discovery was made that truly revolutionized the world economy: the invention of the steam engine (J. Watt between 1765 and 1781).
That was the moment that marked the passage from a rural economy to industrialization: the economic and social structures were transformed following the birth of the first factories. Machinery entered the production chain, speeding up processes and reducing costs. These changes impacted the local and global economy: the gap between the rich bourgeoisie and the poor workers increased and developed a form of protectionism in the nations that did not have the possibility to transform their economy.
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Second Industrial Revolution: electricity and mass production
The birth of the Second Industrial Revolution moved to Germany and simultaneously to the United States between the 19th and 20th centuries. Science and technology went hand in hand, generating an unprecedented number of innovations: from the first power plant to the improvement of steel production; from the first automobile to the first film; from the invention of the telephone to the first internal combustion engine. Henry Ford’s assembly line gave birth to mass production. The list would be too long to mention, but the transformation again impacted global processes, uses, and consumption.
Third Industrial Revolution: the arrival of robots in factories
The third industrial revolution, which took place in the last years of the 20th century, is linked to the first computer discoveries, automation, and computerized numerical control machines. There was no specific place where it started because the innovations and progress it generated resulted from many interconnected micro-discoveries. The actors were the great powers, those with the capital to invest in production and, above all, in research. Indeed, the 3rd revolution was the starting point for new evolutions that led to what Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, today called the Fourth Industrial Revolution:
“Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological spheres.”
Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum
That’s right, the breakthroughs we are witnessing are merging the biological with the physical through digital. Future implementations will be as unpredictable as they are fascinating. What’s the downside? Since the first revolution, the gap between the great powers and the developing countries has never narrowed. The problem is that the complexity of the access to new technologies will only widen. Emerging countries, however, will have an advantage in that they will directly implement current innovations, which are more efficient than those that Western countries are struggling to change.