Oh, the Humanity

Aug. 14, 2013
Industry 4.0 agenda Evolution, not nevolution The value-creation process

You say you want a revolution? Well, there may be one brewing in some of the world’s leading engineering labs. They’re calling it Industry 4.0, and their agenda is to define and fully implement cyber technology in manufacturing processes — not just in terms of networking operations and collecting data, but also in identifying conditions and production circumstances, locating materials and products, and communicating decisions interactively.

Industry 4.0 is a program coordinated by one of Germany’s top research universities. It involves several electronic and engineering firms that will take the lead to implement the techniques and standards they jointly establish.

They explain that declaring their work to be “revolutionary” is meant to place it in sequence with the past several centuries of industrial progress: the first industrial revolution came about when water and steam power were adopted for manufacturing. The second involved electric power, which led to mass production of industrial goods. The third, by the organizers’ count, came with the arrival of digital operations, as electronics and information technology optimized and automated production processes.

On that basis it’s apparent that the Industry 4.0 project is not revolutionary but evolutionary: it is taking the current cyber technologies and projecting them into process manufacturing circumstances, to establish new production standards and operating practices. Reportedly, the research follows closely the concepts laid out in the “Internet of Things” theory, posited as early as 1999. The objective then was to implement technology to track, monitor, organize, and make accessible thousands or millions of individual pieces.

For individuals, that moment has arrived: you can direct or select as much of your life as you choose from your handheld device. You get what you pay for, but it’s a distorted perspective of the real world, because chatting and shopping and gaming don’t accomplish much. The Industry 4.0 agenda is to make those functions truly productive by installing them in a manufacturing “space.”

To me, this is ominous: how much more automated must manufacturing become? What is the point of perfecting our processes if we’re then left with nothing else to do?

I lose patience when products or ideas are declared to be revolutionary. It’s a signal to me that the source is exaggerating the message, or doesn’t really understand what they’re offering. After all, with just one obvious exception, actual revolutions are senseless and bloody things, typically devolving from ideological certainty into pitiless slaughters or despotic cruelty. No one who understands that really wants to be associated with actual revolution.

In defense of Industry 4.0, Dr. Thomas Bauernhansel, the director of Germany’s Institute for Industrial Manufacturing and Management and the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation in Stuttgart (where much of the Industry 4.0 research is being coordinated) emphasized that the research agenda is focused on communication of processes, not integration. “This means we have decentralized autonomous systems that communicate with each other, irrespective of the particular system and manufacturers involved,” he said recently, adding for emphasis: “The human being continues to play a central role in the factory, but a different one. He takes charge of the value-creation process.”

It’s a welcome response, and a pointed one: Manufacturing — and the world generally — does not need more convenience or perfection as much as it needs more creativity, more originality, and more civility. Apart from the obvious advantages of value creation and economic growth, it’s important to stress the role for humanity in our technological developments.

It’s easy to imagine an industrial future without workers, without risk of error, without the liability or the cost of human capital. It’s harder to predict how we can achieve our growth objectives by addressing every demand or variable.

But, the reward for individuals in a cyberspaced world has to be more than purchase points and page views. It’s worth reviving the old maxim that work gives us dignity, and it’s important to remember that without humanity, technology lacks a purpose.   

About the Author

Robert Brooks | Content Director

Robert Brooks has been a business-to-business reporter, writer, editor, and columnist for more than 20 years, specializing in the primary metal and basic manufacturing industries. His work has covered a wide range of topics, including process technology, resource development, material selection, product design, workforce development, and industrial market strategies, among others. Currently, he specializes in subjects related to metal component and product design, development, and manufacturing — including castings, forgings, machined parts, and fabrications.

Brooks is a graduate of Kenyon College (B.A. English, Political Science) and Emory University (M.A. English.)