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Prepare for The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Klaus M. Blache | January 15, 2020

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is fast moving and will require a different set of jobs/skills.

Q: What exactly is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

A: It depends on who you ask and if you are directing your question to Industry 4.0, Manufacturing 4.0, or a specific industry type that may have their own vision/version of what is expected next.

The three prior Industrial Revolutions started about 1760 and have been identified as:

First Industrial Revolution (started in England): Coal (and being able to mine it in large quantities), steam engine/power, metal forging, and the weaving loom. It took us from producing products by hand to using machines. It also moved us from an agricultural to an industrial society.

Second Industrial Revolution: Around 1860, electricity, gas, and oil were catalysts for another revolution. Steel, combustion engines, mass production/assembly lines, railroads, and the telegraph were just some of the innovations. It was a time of faster communication and movement of people.

Third Industrial Revolution: In approximately 1960,  electronics, automation, and nuclear power resulted in another revolution. Electronics and IT together further expanded automation. The Third Revolution is also called the Digital Revolution because it introduced IT applications and supercomputers.

Fourth Industrial Revolution: Today, it’s about renewable energy (solar, wind, and geothermal) and the Internet of Things (IoT). Some see this Fourth Revolution as an extension of the Third Revolution.

“There are three reasons why today’s transformations represent not merely a prolongation of the Third Industrial Revolution but rather the arrival of a distinct Fourth Revolution: velocity, scope, and systems impact. The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential, rather than a linear, pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. The breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance (Click here for more).” The real-time connections (wireless sensors, predictive/condition-based monitoring) to more parts of operating a business will enable the integration of machine/artificial intelligence with the physical assets.

Industry 4.0 falls under the umbrella of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Ideally, Industry 4.0 factories have their machines set up with wireless connectivity and sensors, connected to an intelligent system (digital twin) and make decisions without people.

The beginning of this is “prescriptive maintenance,” in which the system analyzes the incoming and historical data and generates the needed work orders. The latest buzzword is cyber-physical system (CPS), defined as a mechanism that is controlled by computer-based algorithms and integrated with the internet by its users.

Many years ago there were efforts to establish “lights-out” automotive and warehouse factories in the U.S. and Europe, but they were not ready for prime time. Today’s equivalent is typically called a smart factory, but the capabilities are much higher than the lights-out version.

The term “Industrie 4.0” was introduced in 2012 at the Hannover Fair in Germany by Siegfried Russwurm, member of the executive committee and CEO of Siemens’ Industry group. Later, Work 4.0 (Arbeit 4.0 in German) was introduced, which discusses the future of work (how it may change until 2030) as related to Industry 4.0. Manufacturing 4.0 is simply specific to disruptive/innovative technologies related to production such as highly intelligent robots, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, sensors, real-time data, wireless applications, mobility, machine learning, and other data analytics.

It’s an exciting time for engineers and trades/technicians who are willing to expand their knowledge. Some have expressed concern over the potential loss of jobs as this approaches, but there will be many jobs still available, simply different. Also, when I state engineer, I am referring to engineers and trade/technician professionals. You will need jobs such as Data Analytics Engineer, Autonomous Transportation Engineer, Autonomous Farming Engineer, Manufacturing/Industry 4.0 Engineer, Quantum Computing Engineer, Human Technology/Machine Integration Engineer, 3D/4D Printing/Additive Manufacturing Engineer, Augmented Reality/Artificial Intelligence Implementation Engineer, Biomedical Wearables Engineer, High-Speed Transportation Engineer, Data Mining Medical Engineer, Industry 4.0 Implementation/Simulation/Capacity Assurance Engineer, and Reliability & Maintainability Systems Risk Engineer. Every one of these future jobs has several reliability and maintainability components in it, so there will be plenty to do for the Reliability & Maintainability teams. It will be important to keep up with your industry’s future technologies, IoT interfaces, and capabilities.

For a factory or system to be considered Industry 4.0, it must include:

• Interconnection: Machines, devices, sensors, and people to connect and communicate with one another using the internet.

• Information transparency: Provide vast amounts of data (useful information at the plant-floor level) to allow operators to make good decisions.

• Technical assistance: The ability of systems to help humans make decisions and solve problems (by compiling data and making it visual in a meaningful way). In addition, the ability to assist humans with tasks that are difficult/unsafe/ergonomically unfriendly.

• Decentralized decision making: The ability of cyber-physical systems to make simple decisions on their own and become as autonomous as possible (making more difficult decisions). (Adapted from here).

Industry will change very quickly moving forward. Decide what you want to get better at (according to what will affect your business) and learn how to use reliability and maintainability as a competitive advantage. EP

Based in Knoxville, Klaus M. Blache is director of the Reliability & Maintainability Center at the Univ. of Tennessee, and a research professor in the College of Engineering. Contact him at


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