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Social Innovation

Four future factory facts

What does the fourth era of manufacturing – known as “Industrie 4.0” – hold for us and how is this enhancing production?

‘Industry 4.0’, the ‘connected factory’, the ‘Industrial Internet of Things’: all these terms refer to a vision of the future where products are manufactured within a system of networked people, assets and machines.

Governments, scientists and private companies are all trying to grapple with this manufacturing revolution, but what are the facts that we know?

Who coined the term Industry 4.0?

The term "Industrie 4.0" was first used in a German Government strategy document promoting the computerisation of manufacturing. Since then it has become a key tenant of German industrial strategy and has been widely adopted across the globe.

The thinking behind the name is that we’re entering a fourth era of manufacturing. The first, in the 18th century, was characterised by the steam engine and the mechanisation of manual work. The second, towards the end of the 18th century, came with the electrification of production whilst the third, in the middle of the 20th century, focused on automation. In this sense, the merging of the physical and the digital is seen as a natural progression of these eras, as machines grow ever more intelligent and integral to the process.

The rise of robot manufacturing

Experts predict that by 2018, 1.3 million robots will be in use in factories. Globally, South Korea leads the way in industrial robotics, with 437 robots installed per 100 employees. Some companies have already taken robot production to the next level. This year, Adidas announced the opening of their "Speedfactory" in Ansbach, southern Germany where robots will create 500,000 pairs of trainers per year with the help of only 160 human staff. The company believes that the new factory will cut their production time of 18 months from concept to shelf, to just five hours, as consumers send their customised orders directly to the factory.

Data, data and more data

The amount of data in the world is growing exponentially, with some experts calculating that the total data market will reach $132bn by 2020. The rise of smart manufacturing machines has contributed to this, with some estimates suggesting UK and global companies will invest over $US 900 billion per year in smart technology. Companies who find ways of capturing and analysing data effectively will gain a significant advantage in the future.

An added dimension

3D printing started off as a novelty with very few industrial applications. However, as technology has rapidly improved, industrial users have embraced it. 3D printing lowers the cost of production of low volume parts compared to traditional machining and moulding. 3D printing is also very effective at producing complicated custom parts, often with unusual materials, which are virtually impossible to make with other methods. According to Wohlers Report 2015, a leading 3D printing insights report, the 3D printing industry is expected to grow by more than 31% per year between 2014 and 2020 to eventually generate over $21 billion in worldwide revenue.