The fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0, is all about going digital. But the term – and the basic idea behind it – are not new. First used in 2011 at Hannover Fair in Germany, the term Industry 4.0 originates from a question posed by the German government to its country’s manufacturing industry leaders: What is the next stage of evolution for manufacturing?

Van Miller, Product Specialist, Rittal Automation Systems
The first industrial revolution mobilized production by water and steam power; the second, by adding electric power. The third was the digital revolution and the use of electronics to automate production. So this fourth industrial revolution centers around the “digital factory” – digitizing the entire manufacturing process, from design to production.

“Four years ago, the idea of Industry 4.0 was being spoken in German circles – there was no footprint of it here in the United States or outside Germany that I could recognize in our industry,” said Van Miller, Product Specialist for Rittal Automation Systems. “If you’ve been to Hannover Fair the past few years, the concept has been exploding all over. You see references to it in a lot of the participants’ booths; what they’re bringing to this concept, taking the concept of the value-added chain, and how they’re feeding into that in some way.”

The advantages of digitizing manufacturing and production are many: flexibility, efficiency, maximum use of resources, real-time data, an open manufacturing network that enables cyber-physical systems to communicate with each other – the Internet of Things (IoT). Those who already produce digitalized products have a clear competitive advantage.

“This is a concept I’ve been working with our partners on here in the United States for the past six years or so,” Miller said. “When this concept of Industry 4.0 came around, and I saw how this message was being introduced, it made a lot of sense to me. As someone going around the U.S. talking about the overall concept, you have to find early adopters – people who are looking for an edge over their competition.” Across the United States, explained Miller, “there was only a certain portion of our industry or our customers that were willing to step out in that new method of manufacturing.”

In the United States, the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition (SMLC) – a non-profit organization of manufacturers, suppliers, technology firms, government agencies, universities, and laboratories – is advancing the Industry 4.0 idea by constructing an open manufacturing platform for industrial-networked information applications. The SMLC’s goal is to enable manufacturing firms of all sizes to gain easy and affordable access to modeling and analytical technologies that can be customized to meet their needs.

“Control panel manufacturing here in the U.S.,” added Miller, “certainly has been very much a series of manual operations. If you look back 30 years, it probably wouldn’t look very different than how panels are put together today. What we’re bringing is not only the automation steps, but also helping customers realize how data on a component level is required to drive these automation systems.

“Look at the auto industry for example, which implemented a lot of automation early on,” Miller continued. “If you look at a BMW plant, it is highly automated. But what is interesting is that the companies who are developing that automation and the controls behind it are doing everything manually. There’s an irony there – the people building automation for everybody else are very manually based in terms of design and manufacturing. That’s what we’re working hard to change.”

One of the goals of Industry 4.0 is the idea of having high production volumes, but also high variability at the same time. “We’re not talking about cookie-cutter products,” said Miller. “Often in an OEM’s product family, you’ll have a lot of different options that need to be taken into account, and some people see the final control panel as a custom product due to the fact that they manually have to touch each job. At the end of the day, it’s really just a marriage of a large number of options.”

Putting it All Together

So what exactly is a cyber-physical system, and how is it all put together? The system consists of elements (machinery, tools, workstations, etc.) that communicate with each other in a coordinated way. Modern electrical, electromechanical, and hydraulic systems and their components have intelligent elements – such as controls, sensors, and actuators – and communication interfaces that exchange data between the systems and components using the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Cyber-physical systems and IIoT are critical elements of smart factories — production environments in which all the elements involved in the production process communicate with each other.

Industry 4.0 is about data, software, and interfaces, and the ability to use them to model and simulate the final product in a virtual environment to optimize the design and eliminate errors prior to actual manufacturing. The idea continues through the manufacturing process to customer delivery and throughout the life of the product.

This interface extends to predictive maintenance. Sensors automatically indicate whether a machine needs maintenance before the machine breaks down. However, using digital networking and machine communication, real-time data from parts and components in an Industry 4.0 environment can be sent to machine operators and systems, and when combined with other types of data, can be used to predict the best maintenance intervals. Predictive maintenance identifies faults before they occur and prevents machine down-time.

For several years, Hannover Fair has played a major role in paving the way to Industry 4.0. Rarely in history has a technology had such a profound impact in such a short amount of time. The new industrial era will gain further momentum at the 2016 Hannover Fair, not only in terms of the technologies on display, but also the radical new business models stemming from them.

If you’ve always wanted to attend Germany’s renowned Hannover Fair – the manufacturing industry’s most exciting and largest industrial trade show and fair in the world – here’s your chance. NASA Tech Briefs is sponsoring a promotion to win an all-expense-paid trip to Hannover Fair with Rittal, the world’s largest enclosure manufacturer and a leader in thermal management of electrical, electronic, and IT equipment. Read more about it and enter to win at .