The First Industrial Revolution is probably the one we are all familiar with from school text books. The harnessing of water and steam power in the 19th Century and subsequent transition from a rural economy to an urban one. An era characterised by dark satanic mills and which gave the Black Country its name (the exact origins of which are a blog in itself). It sky's stained black by the sooty smoke of coal fired industry by day and illuminated by the glow of furnaces at night. Ironbridge, home of the world’s first iron bridge and a world heritage site, is considered the birthplace of the first industrial revolution.
The Second Industrial Revolution ran from the 1850's to the start of World War I. This period is characterised by the introduction of steel and electrification giving rise to mass production. The ability to make many identical copies of products, quickly and cheaply, using assembly line techniques, rather than having a worker work on a whole product from start to finish. The archetypical product of this era would be the Model-T Ford.
The Third Industrial Revolution ran from the 1950's to the late 1970's. This harnessed developments in electronics and IT to further automate production processes. It was marked by a shift from analogue, mechanical technologies to electronic and digital ones. Valves gave way to transistors, computers became ubiquitous. It would be hard to pick a single product to characterise this era, but if I had to, it would the humble wristwatch. Transformed from a complex, often unreliable, mechanical device to a solid state, battery powered one, capable of doing things its mechanical predecessor couldn't.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is the fusion of three key components of the digital age in which we now live. One is the Internet of Things and cyber-physical systems (collaborating computational elements controlling physical entities) such as sensors that have the ability to collect data that can be used by manufacturers. Secondly, advancements in big data that mean systems can trawl through huge data sets to produce insights that can be acted upon quickly. Thirdly, a secure communications infrastructure that can be utilised by heavy industries.
Smart factories will be at the heart of Industry 4.0. Individual stand-alone factories will disappear, subsumed into complex geographical networks of manufacturers and suppliers. The human element all but eliminated from the manufacturing process. The smart factory will source components from the most cost effective suppliers and assemble the product to the customer’s specification.
Machines will use self-optimisation, self-configuration and artificial intelligence to complete complex tasks, delivering vastly superior cost efficiencies and better quality goods or services. They will be able to predict failure, trigger preventative maintenance processes autonomously and self–organise logistics to respond to unexpected changes in production.
Some estimates suggest that half the world’s jobs could disappear in the next 30 years such is the scope and speed of change that the Industry 4.0 will bring, wiping out largely hither-too secure middle-class jobs and exacerbating inequality. Driving for instance is predicted to be almost fully automated within the next 25 years. If that sounds fanciful consider this, self-driving vehicles are likely to start appearing on our roads in the next 5 to 10 years and once insurance companies realise they’re safer insurance premiums will drive the speed of adoption. A manual car with a steering wheel will become a self-indulgent luxury, a status symbol that says you can afford the extortionate insurance premium.
In fact why own a car at all? Simply pay a monthly fee to access a network of self-driving cars and use a smart phone app like uber to book a car to drive you where you want when you want and get billed at the end of the month. While autonomous good vehicles drive through the night to deliver goods and cut congestion.
If you think all this is fanciful science-fiction consider this. The German government outlined a plan to almost fully computerise manufacturing industry without the need for human involvement back in 2013. Angela Merkel, told the World Economic Forum in Davos, in 2015 that 'Industrie 4.0' is the way that we "deal quickly with the fusion of the online world and the world of industrial production." Germany is investing €200 million (around £146 million, $216 million, or AU$278 million) to encourage research across academia, business and government to this end.
But perhaps the most burning question of all, has yet to be addressed by the politicians. How do we share wealth fairly and equitably in a world where full-employment is no longer possible?