Commentary 2017: Does Anyone really Understand “Industry 4.0”? by Gerry Byrne

1 Introduction


The hypothesis presented here is that as a result of the scale, breadth and speed of global development of “Industry 4.0” nobody can fully embrace the full extent of Digitisation nor predict the full implications of Industry 4.0. This is not surprising as it was also the case with the 3 previous industrial revolutions. The reason for the hypothesis is that the natural tendency is for us to view Industry 4.0 from our own discipline perspective. For example my perspective is manufacturing engineering and in this and many other cases it is viewed too narrowly. Some see Industry 4.0 to be the addition of connectivity to our industrial processes in order to further enhance the process efficiency. This is one perspective and is indeed valid at least to some extent. However, in his recent book entitled “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum takes a much broader view and is seeing Industry 4.0 as opening up profound technological, social and economic transformation which will reshape society.  

One approach is to view Industry 4.0 from the perspective of applying digital technologies to the physical world. Another is to view it from the perspective of applying digital technologies to the biological world. And there are numerous other perspectives and approaches. However, it is even much bigger that that. There are multiple drivers of Industry 4.0 and it is not just about the upgrading of industrial processes with digital technology capabilities.


In a recent report (2017) from acatech [The German National Academy for Science and Engineering] entitled “Industrie 4.0 Maturity Index” it was noted that the term Industrie 4.0 exists since 2011 and refers to the massive connection between information and communication technology [ICT] and industrial production. The purely technological perspective however represents perhaps an overly narrow view of the real situation. The report comments that digitization must also take organizational and cultural areas of companies into account. This may also be an understatement of the true implications of Industry 4.0.    


Digitisation brings with it a very sophisticated and complex multi-variable matrix which involves billions of people being individually connected through mobile devices and an unprecedented access to knowledge. Indeed as we speed into the Industry 4.0 era, many of us and many companies are still trying to come to terms with the third industrial revolution and are still sitting firmly in it (in Industry 3.0).

It is indeed interesting and relevant to dedicate one short paragraph to the background history. In Ireland for example, we had a remarkable scheme in the 1920’s for electricity generation we refer to as the Ard na Crusha development. With this milestone project it could be argued that we made the shift from the first industrial revolution to the second industrial revolution – the integration or fusion of electrical systems into mechanical systems. This fusion process took us through the second world war and on into the 1960’s and 1970’s. At this stage we progressed into another integration or fusion process – the introduction of computers and software into our industries. Major programmes of computer–integrated-manufacturing (CIM) resulted. CIM emerged. Significant progress was made from the virtual perspective in the modeling of our manufacturing processes. Foundations were laid for accurate virtual descriptions right down to the molecular and atomic levels. Despite the great technological advances (which are very well documented) severe limitations existed which we did not recognize at that time.


In more recent times we see the extremely rapid growth of digitization, the rapid development of cyber physical systems. If we were to choose one word to summarise the new situation is might be “connectivity”, connectivity in the local, regional, national and global sense. With remarkable foresight, the German system coined the expression (Industrie 4.0 – industrie vier komma null). To an external observer (like myself) this seemed at the time to be perhaps almost naïve – but I should have known better. I can recall a discussion around 2012 in Berlin where the idea that a block of metal wanders into a factory, takes a look around, knows what needs to be done to it and then decides itself which machines to go to and which processes and measurements are necessary to bring it to its target shape and dimensional tolerance level. This seemed quite absurd to a classical manufacturing engineer at the time.


However, the term ‘Industry 4.0’ spread like wildfire right across the globe – not just the term but also the initiative. In summary, a common word across each of the industrial revolutions is “Fusion” – fusion of electrical systems with mechanical systems (industry 2), fusion of mechanical + electrical systems with computers (industry 3) and then the fusion of mechanical + electrical + digital systems into what has been called Industry 4.0.\

2 What does Digitisation Mean and is  it different to Industry 4.0 ?

Coming back to the word “Fusion” it is clearly evident that the physical, the digital and the biological world are undergoing rapid processes of fusion at a rate never before experienced in the history of mankind. As we present and discuss the topic it all seems broad and difficult to link to reality in our everyday lives.


The developments seem to be affecting everything – all disciplines, economies, and governments. We can all feel this and experience examples of it most days of the week. There is increasing use of artificial intelligence (early stage implementation), of quantum computing, of drones, of DNA sequencing, of smart sensors, of robots, of wearables, of nanoparticles, of 3-D printed components, of self parking cars, of disruptive business models such as UBER etc. etc. The list is endless. This is a sample list of ‘Digitisation’ but is it the list regarding ‘Industry 4.0’ ? The most recent Aachener Werkzeugmaschinen Kolloquium (AWK 2017) had the title “Internet of Production for Agile Organisations”. The full focus was on the world of manufacturing but strongly incorporating the human interface.


Regarding ‘Digitisation’ in the broader context, consider the following possible future scenarios:


  • A Mobile Phone implanted into the human body
  • The robotisation of human beings
  • The first transplant of a 3-D printed liver
  • The first 3-D printed car
  • Smart light/electricity poles in cities fully sensored up and acting like a receiver and transmission stations.


Well Dr. Schwab of the World Ecomomic Forum produced the above plus a much longer list. He refers to “Tipping Points” and to 21 tipping points where specific technological shifts hit mainstream society – these will shape our future digital and hyper connected world. Based on the analysis he reports, it seems likely that the above things will actually happen.


Nowadays we make frequent use of the terms “disruptive” and “transformational”. It is hard to argue against the apparent fact that Digitisation truly is redefining society, business and industry in a global manner.


At the local and international business levels, rapid transformation is clearly evident. New business models are showing a transition away from companies selling hard physical systems to new models of selling services - sometime referred to as ‘servitisation’. Interesting R&D work is taking place in this area by colleagues from the International Academy for Production Engineering (CIRP). This can mean that the recipient/customer does not invest large sums from their “capital” budget but lower amounts on a regular basis from “operational budgets”. Traditional industries producing for example machines or cars need to assess the new situation with such new models and new competitors entering the field. The old model of individuals investing considerable sums of money in a new car does not appear to have a future and the automotive industry is preparing for this. Perhaps this is a key point - industry 4.0 or at least digitisation is operating right down at the level of the individual.


Perhaps we can take learnings from the microelectronic industry development over the last 30 years, in the period since the disappearance of the “electric valve” look at what has happened both at the individual and the company and corporate levels.


We can expect that the equivalent of Moore’s Law will be applicable to the technical development of each of our physical, digital and biological systems in their own right and also in the context of fusion between these fields. Although it now seems reasonable that we will see each of the above systems pushing boundaries at rates which we hardly have the capability of coming to terms with.


And so to the question of differentiation between Digitisation and Industry 4.0 – the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It seemed reasonable around the 2011/12 time that Industry 4.0 was a subset of the overall developments under the banner of digitization. Indeed as acatech reported, this was the case and Industry 4.0 grew from the industrial perspective. An equivalent in the USA is “The Industrial Internet of Things”.


Given what has happened in the last 5 years it is now becoming clearer that whilst we might visualize Digitisation to be the umbrella and Industry 4.0 to be one pillar – this is a very diffuse picture and that the interplay between political, economic, societal, cultural, business, industrial and the individual sits at the centre of a massive interconnected web and that drawing boundaries is difficult and artificial – indeed perhaps unnecessary.


For purposes of this Commentary let me draw the conclusion that a ‘Debate’ is needed to bring clarity to the question of boundaries.


One thesis, and this is the one that I think I favour, is that digitization and industry 4.0 are essentially morphing into being one and the same thing.  


3 A New Word in the German and English Dictionaries – “Biologizierung” – “Biologicalisation” ?


The term Industry 4.0 was born in Germany in 2012. And now Germany has brought forward a new term 6 years later (in 2017) “Biologizierung”. There is now a community in Germany that is using it and it seems to be spreading – just like Industry 4.0 spread in the early part of this decade. As a native English speaker, I am looking for a good translation. At first I said that Bilogicalisation would not be a good translation as it is difficult to pronounce BIO-LOGICAL-IS-ATION with the four syllables -
Bio-logical-is-ation. However, I am changing my mind and recognize that this is perhaps the first Commentary written in English using this term and that one can become accustomed to using it after a little practice.


So what is it – ‘Biologicalisation’ ?


The German term “Biologizierung” or Biologicalisation has not yet been precisely defined to the authors knowledge but it is anticipated that it is the start of an entirely new revolution which has the potential to impact on the human being in a highly personal and profound manner. – more so than the societal, cultural, economic and political impact of digitization to-date.


In his book on Industry 4.0 Klaus Schwab describes the innovations in the Biological realm as being nothing less than breathtaking. In recent years considerable progress has been made in reducing the cost and increasing the use of genetic sequencing and lately in activitating or editing genes. With advances in computing power scientists no longer go by trial and error, rather they test the way in which specific genetic variations generate particular traits and diseases.


Synthetic biology is the next step providing the ability to customize organisms by writing DNA. These developments will have a profound and immediate effect on medicine and also on agriculture and the production of biofuels.


The implications of having the ability to determine our individual genetic make up opens up a new revolution in personalized and effective healthcare. The availability of high quality data will open up new opportunities for precision medicine and for the provision of highly targeted therapies to improve treatment processes.


Within this field no one can accurately predict what specific industries will develop and grow in the “Bio” sector. From the industrial perspective we will see an increasing requirement for machines and engineering systems having the capabilities to operate reliably at the microscopic, cellular and atomic levels. We will have machines printing organs but there will be a complete new industry in assessing the quality of the manufactured biosystem – metrology will take on a new meaning.


Some of these trends were evident at the recent Conference of the International Academy for Production Engineering [CIRP} in Chicago where Mirkin (Feynmann Prize Winner) spoke of complete new directions in Chemistry and the advent of new materials with capabilities way beyond the boundaries of current day capability. New techniques for cell manipulation as well as for tissue building through entirely new additive manufacturing technologies were also reported on. Engineering scientists then look at the new challenges involved in moving beyond prototypes and developing machines for ramp up to large scale production. Of course the metrologists are challenged to assess the uncertainties arising in the systems.


Engineering is being redefined. The shift is taking place from “Microsystems” to “Nanosystems”. Scientists and Engineers will be required in the design and manufacture and testing of the new components and systems. Our engineering faculties will be challenged to produce graduates with the required skillsets to work in this new environment. Crafts-persons and technicians with entirely new and different skillsets will be required.


So yes, there is an industrial revolution taking place and Biologicalisation is sitting at the centre of it.


4 Trend Summary - Industry 4.0

Digitisation and Industry 4.0 are morphing into being one and the same thing.


Physical Systems are developing at a breathtaking pace – some elements predictable and some not.


Digital Systems with 5G technology is just around the corner facilitating the Massive internet of things.


Biological Systems – perhaps a little behind the broader physical systems but fusion “bio” and “digital” is accelerating at great speed.


Biologicalisation – a new English word – we should adopt it !

4 Conclusions

 In addressing the question “Does Anybody Understand ‘Industry 4.0’ ?” it is becomes quickly evident that Industry 4.0 probably penetrates very deeply into every discipline and sub-discipline without exception. Digitistion opens up entirely new personal connectivity possibilities. In one of my previous papers of this nature (not a scientific one) I made that point that “Connectivity is like Oxygen – people cannot live without oxygen and increasingly cannot live without connectivity”.


Connectivity will get better with wearables both outside and inside the body and the implications of 5G technology and the “Massive Internet of Things” are truly far reaching.


Disruption to the more traditional industrial practices is inevitable. Successful businesses will marry their core know-how with the new business models – many of them being service centric models based on functionality. Many producers of physical systems such as machine tools and robots seem likely to revamp their business models to a service provision rather than actually selling their hardware systems – i.e. from selling hardware to selling functionality. Within the overall operating societal and industrial environments, the 17 listed OECD sustainability goals will act as drivers in this new 5G era.


The human centric ‘Industry 4.0” developments will be addressed and facilitated through ‘Biologicalistion’


The Boards of Directors of businesses and companies from large scale Multinational (MNC’s) to small and micro sizes enterprises (SME’s) need to undertake on-going technology monitoring to provide input to their continually developing innovation practices. In most cases they need to link to well informed national and international R&D support organsiations such as Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), Enterprise Ireland, Irish Manufacturing Centre (IMC), Fraunhofer etc. for support. Senior Management in companies and organisations face new, unprecedented and exciting challenges with investment in innovation and with R&D forming an increasingly critical aspect of their responsibilities for the development of their next generation products and services. We are shifting from “Data” to “Big Data” and from the “Internet of Things” to the “Massive Internet of Things”, from Industry 3.0 to Industry 4.0.


Despite the transformations and paradigm shifts described above some things will not change. The customer/client retains centre stage position and the fundamental mission of the companies delivering services is to ensure “end user simplicity” and a high comfort level for the customer.


Back to the question “Does Anyone really understand Industry 4.0 ?”.


Having read this document, you will perhaps appreciate why the author asks the question and why he follows the chosen hypothesis of “No” to the question. The real challenge is that there are multiple revolutions (or perhaps sub-revolutions) happening more or less simultaneously under the broad umbrella of Digitisation.


“Biologicalisation” is perhaps one of them and “Biologicalisation & Manufacturing” another.






The author is currently leading a “Biologicalisation and Manufacturing” project with the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Munich, Germany. It was not his intention that this commentary be seen to be an in-depth scientific treatise on the topic of Industry 4.0.

About Gerry Byrne: An internationally recognized engineer and leader in R&D in advanced manufacturing and industrial innovation.

Contact details: mobile 00353872429631.


The author would be most interested in receiving feedback on this commentary.