Kuka at Hannover 2015In the rush of a lot of news and a vacation thrown in, I’m still digesting news from Hannover Messe in April. Microsoft had called and asked if I could stop by for an interview, but unfortunately I was not at Hannover.

Below is a Microsoft blog post. The writer posits three industrial ages, and then he surprises us by announcing the arrival of a fourth. Interestingly, it is at Hannover two years ago where Industrie 4.0 sprang forth into our consciousness. Here is Microsoft’s take on the fourth generation of manufacturing along with a few specific examples of what it means in practice.

I think this is a good, though not necessarily complete, look at aspects of Industry 4.0.


From the blog


When we think about what it takes to build a successful business, there were three main eras, which characterized important shifts in the global marketplace. The first was the industrial revolution when people began to mass-produce and distribute goods with tremendous scale and efficiency. Since everyone received information at the same time and speed was not an issue, change wasn’t particularly fast.

What followed was the Information Age where people weren’t just using technology to drive production efficiencies; they were using it to drive information efficiencies. During this time, competitive advantage began to shift to our access to information.

Today, information and data are ubiquitous which has had a tremendous effect on both our digital work and life experiences. The world has formed a giant network where everyone has access to anyone and everything. Some people refer to this as the Connected Age.

However, the ubiquity of data and connected devices, coupled with important advances in machine learning, are powering a new set of capabilities called the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT is now at the forefront of a fourth era in business productivity. With IoT, companies worldwide are transforming the way they plant crops, assemble goods and maintain machinery. Now, several Microsoft customers and partners, including Fujitsu, KUKA Robotics, and Miele, are announcing IoT initiatives that will change the way people live and work.

IoT’s influence on those companies and many others is on display this week at the large industry fair Hannover Messe, where the term “Industry 4.0” was first coined. Everywhere we look there are examples of physical assets integrated with processes, systems and people, and exciting possibilities are being fueled by this transformation.

At this event, Microsoft is showing how we’re helping manufacturers innovate, bring products to market more quickly and transform into digital businesses. Aided by unlimited compute power and rich data platforms, the creation of “systems of intelligence” that enable reasoning over vast amounts of data are empowering individuals and organizations with actionable insights.


Blending physical with digital


Fujitsu is bringing together its Eco-Management Dashboard, IoT/M2MP platform, Microsoft cloud services, and Windows tablets in a way that can enable managers, engineers, and scientists to improve product quality, streamline systems, and enhance functionality while reducing costs. For example, at its facility in Aizu Wakamatsu, Japan, Fujitsu is able to grow lettuce that is both delicious and low in potassium so that it can be consumed by dialysis patients and people with chronic kidney disease. They can track all of the plant info from their Windows tablets through the cloud. These solutions will also be able to help other agriculture and manufacturing companies transform their businesses through innovation.

Artificial intelligence is no longer a fantastic vision for the future—it is happening today. KUKA, a manufacturer of industrial robots and automation solutions, is using the Microsoft IoT platform to create one of the world’s first showcases that blends IT with robotic technologies into a smart manufacturing solution with new capabilities.

Intelligent Industrial Work Assistant (LBR iiwa), a sensitive and safe lightweight robot, uses precise movements and sensor technology to perceive its surroundings around a complex task like performing the delicate action of threading a tube into a small hole in the back of a dishwasher. Errors in the supply chain are addressed in real time through Windows tablets, making the automated process faster and easier. Through this demonstration, KUKA is highlighting how its LBR iiwa can collaborate with humans to jointly perform the task as peers working together without being controlled by a human or using a vision system.


Eyeing physical assets through a digital lens


For companies trying to understand how this approach can help, look at the infrastructure you already have. How can these assets become connected and intelligent? What kind of data would help to reduce cost, or increase agility? How can you use insights to grow revenue in existing operations, or offer those insights to customers and create new revenue streams?

The focus here is on transforming existing business models and adding cloud-connected services. In the age of Industry 4.0, manufacturing and resource companies will no longer compete over the products and features they offer, but on new business models they can either pursue themselves or offer to customers.

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