Part II - Industry 4.0 & It's Acceleration Post COVID-19
5 MIN READ | MARCH 25, 2020
What a difference a week makes. The world has literally changed in front of my eyes since I last posted the first part of this series. Originally, I wanted to stay clear of talking about the current health crisis, but everything I started writing seemed mute and devoid of relevance to where all our minds seem to wander. Then it hit me, I suddenly realized how the concept of industry 4.0 couldn’t be more relevant in today’s unfortunate environment. Industry 4.0 is likely the reason we are not only going to come out of this COVID-19 crisis successfully, but also why our working behavior will inevitably change moving forward.
What Is Industry 4.0 and Where Did It Come From?
Today, we are undergoing another shift as powerful as the first industrial revolution. There have been three previous industrial revolutions since the first, which started sometime around 1776, all of them different in their scope and focus, but none more historically dramatic than the first. Where the first industrial revolution was largely focused on the centralization of work, industry 4.0 is for the most part the antithesis.
Industry 4.0 is a revolution focused on the optimization of the previous innovations of the “Information Age,” otherwise known as industry 3.0. Since the “beginning” of industry 3.0, electronics, specifically the computer and microprocessor, opened industry to entirely new methods of automated production, more efficient processes, and new ways to communicate. Industry 4.0 is amplifying the pervasiveness of technology and networks via the internet of things (IoT) (which we will talk about in the next part of this blog series), and accelerating its impact and utility using complicated software developments like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.
If the information age was an amp, industry 4.0 turned it up to eleven; the pace of change has been truly amazing. It's almost impossible to really understand the current speed of change this revolution is having on the way we work, interact, etc. and that is kind of the point. Industry 4.0 is changing things so fast because, in a lot of ways, it has taken the human out of the driver seat.
The Workplace Redefined
The technology developed over the last few decades is not limited to the human experience nor the linear trend of innovation. Industry 4.0 not only improves the leveraged work a person can do with digital technology, but improves on these same technologies at each iteration. This is why the pace of change is so great right now, technology is no longer limited to the growth curve of human acceptance; it is exponential. Previous cycles of optimization involved humans optimizing human processes, but industry 4.0 is about technology optimizing itself; and technology improves at an exponential rate.
The pace and benefits of this change has also empowered another interesting, and disruptive, change to the way we work — mobility. Today, networks are robust, secure, and provide a multitude of different ways that we can interact and work from a distance. In terms of work, automation and AI enable a large majority of what we do to be done from anywhere, at any time. Contracts can be digitally signed, meetings held in real-time around the world, email, etc. all enable us to do things today that would have been exceptionally difficult, if not downright impossible, a decade ago.
In 2004 I can remember being effectively useless when I was away from the office. If I did not show up, for whatever reason, I paid a hefty price in lost productivity. Our database systems were local servers, we could not easily share large files or presentations, and documentation was still faxed on occasion. It was the dark ages. YouTube didn’t really exist yet.
Currently, I am writing this from my home office, as part of our company being socially responsible, and I am way more productive than I was in 2004 when I was in the office. Industry 4.0 has enabled me to be everywhere and do anything, without actually being anywhere. There is a program or technology to do anything I might need to from home, if I don’t know something, I just google it or watch a how-to video. Need to conference or have a meeting? There are a plethora of options for video conferencing now where the quality is so high-end that you would have expected to pay a cool $1MM for the systems installation at your offices in 2004. Today they are free.
This dramatic improvement in our operational capacity to contribute while “out of office” is what enabled some companies to begin playing with the concept of “working from home” or “mobile workforce.” Over the last few years, many companies have been adapting with this concept, slowly and methodically, seeing how this new workforce dynamic would play out. Most expectations were that the mobile workforce would grow significantly over the next 10+ years, but government measures in response to the current COVID-19 have very likely pressed hard on this trend’s gas pedal. I think we will all look back at this event as the time when the definition of the workplace changed.
COVID-19 Driving Rapid Adoption of Industry 4.0
Let’s not kid ourselves, COVID-19 is very serious and we are all trying our best to handle the kind of shock we are experiencing watching Hollywood screenplays becoming all too real, but we are actually positioned to handle it well. Listening to experts discuss the global health crisis and you get the general impression that this kind of epidemic was always going to happen sometime so lets be a little thankful that it happened today and not a decade or more ago.
We are not good at adopting change, unless it is forced upon us. If change is forced, we are a resilient bunch and often quick to find creative ways to make that change work to our advantage. As horrible as this pandemic is, it is forcing us to find new ways to work away from the office, the factory, the store; and thanks to the developments of industry 4.0 we have multiple opportunities to stay safe and productive while at home.
From a work and economical point of view, yes there is going to be a hit to our short-term productivity, but imagine this happening 10 or more years ago. Work could not be done, there would be no mechanism to truly stabilize our economy. Today, we are still in collective denial, and it's natural to wish for days long gone where everything was “normal”; this will pass. Once the full gravity of the situation is understood and we all start actively playing our part to flatten the curve and look out for one another, we will start seeing the opportunities around us.
The technologies that industry 4.0 has optimized and the networking it has enabled has streamlined our capacity to multitask and contribute to work without being chained to the confines of a centralized workspace. For the past few decades, industry 4.0 has been optimizing the benefits of mobile computing and thereby the benefits of mobile work, now we just need to start actively embracing it as the new “normal.”
The good news is that we will all get through the current crisis and when we do we may, very likely, be living in a far more mobile-centric world. One where the concept of work is more about productivity than location, and collaboration than hours spent in meetings.