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The Next Industrial Revolution

GoochIn my latest scientific observation, I have noted that amazing things happen when two powerful forces converge on the same space at the same time. This morning, that space was our upstairs bathroom, and the forces were my daughters. The results were not revolutionary, though the energy emitted by an arguing teen and tween was certainly explosive.

But such convergences aren’t always so destructive. The joining of two powerful forces–water and mechanization–ushered in the first industrial revolution. The second industrial revolution replaced steam power with electricity to bring about mass production. The third added electronics to the machines to enable automation. The fourth industrial revolution, according to many smart people who spend much of their time trying to figure out such things, involves cyber-physical systems (CPS) that bring together software, sensors, processors, and communication technologies.

One of those smart people is James Truchard, the co-founder and CEO of National Instruments. He shared his vision of where he thinks industry is headed during the opening keynote last month’s NIWeek.

“Cyber-physical systems have the components of computation, control and communication … all in an integrated environment that let you merge the real world with the virtual world,” he said. “A programmable world, Internet of Things, intelligent systems, big analog data, the cloud, Industry 4.0, the smart factory, machine to machine, industrial Ethernet … all of these things are converging. The technologies are becoming available to solve these problems.”

You Can’t Fight the System

History has a habit of repeating itself. Hindsight shows us Henry Ford didn’t get rich by making cars, he got rich because he invented a system to produce cars more efficiently. Other tycoons of the late 1800s understood the importance of a system as well. Whoever controlled the system of rails that allowed the technologies of the day to converge held the true power.

Likewise, whoever creates or controls even a small portion of the “system” in cyber-physical systems will lead the fourth Industrial Revolution. That may be why Truchard is positioning NI as the platform that will enable CPS.

“We use graphical system design to build cyber-physical systems — advanced measurements and advanced controls in a single platform,” he told NI Week attendees.

Designing Production

If NI is building the modern-day equivalent of a railroad that will bring disparate, raw technologies to bear, other companies are focused on creating the Industry 4.0 version of Henry Ford’s assembly line. Industry 4.0 was coined by Germany’s Research Union, an organization of scientists and business and industry executives that advises the German government. One of those expert advisers is Marion Horstmann, head of strategy at Siemens’ Industry Sector.

Siemens, which calls itself the world’s leading supplier of automation technology and industrial software systems, may be piloting the assembly line of the future in one of its electronics factories in Amberg, Germany.

“The Amberg factory is a good illustration of where we’re heading,” Horstmann is quoted as saying on Siemens’ website. “Digital planning still has to be transferred into real production ‘by hand’ in Amberg, as the two processes are currently sequential. However, in the future they will increasingly overlap, and they will ultimately be concurrent … When that happens, engineers who plan a new product, such as a new switchgear, will use special software to simultaneously design its manufacturing process, including all associated mechanical, electronic, and automation systems.”

It’s an amazing concept to contemplate. Look at how simultaneously being able to design and simulate mechanical and virtual systems has already drastically changed the design engineer’s job responsibilities. The ramifications of simultaneously being able to impact the workings of a factory of the future as you’re designing and simulating a product are mind boggling.

Horstmann’s prediction won’t come true overnight, but if and when it does, the definition of design engineering will broaden so much that today’s state-of-the art will barely be recognizable. Increasingly, many design engineers are tasked with bringing computation, control and communication technologies together in one product–one system–via mechanical, electronic and software-based solutions. We may be witnessing the first steps toward the design-driven factories of the future.

Jamie Gooch is the managing editor of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at de-editors@deskeng.com.

About Jamie J. Gooch

Jamie Gooch is the managing editor of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at de-editors@deskeng.com.