The road to the 4th industrial revolution

Brian Holliday on what the 4th industrial revolution means for British manufacturing

Brian Holliday quote

The combination of active manufacturing support schemes from Government and key automation technology developments could underpin efforts to boost high-value and flexible manufacturing and help re-boot the nation's industrial sectors.  Brian Holliday, Managing Director at Siemens Digital Factory, who has provided expert input to Government, has argued that greater industrial technology awareness and deployment are required if the country is to reach the productivity levels necessary to maintain or expand its manufacturing footprint. Here, he explores some of the automation technology trends currently impacting manufacturing, and touches on the next predicted productivity leap - a fourth industrial revolution now referred to as Industry 4.0.


Since the first Industrial Revolution, technology has been the primary enabler of productivity in manufacturing.  Early developments were mechanised such as Edmund Cartwright’s loom in 1784 which was based on a shaft drive and enabled textile production beyond labour based methods.  A second productivity leap was evident by the late 1800s, resulting from the introduction of electrical energy (conveyors driven by electrical motors for example) and labour division concepts that became central to the success of mass production since their first use in the slaughterhouses and meat packing businesses of Cincinnati around 1825.  It wasn’t until the 1960s however that a third significant productivity change was achieved.  This was when factories began to exploit intelligent manufacturing technology and programmable automation and robotic systems were introduced making growth possible in key sectors like automotive and electronics.

Today, manufacturing is changing faster than ever before and the drivers for this include globalisation, individualisation, time to market and sustainability.  Energy and resource efficiency are increasingly decisive factors in manufacturing competitiveness, even in developing economies which are adopting automation technology at rates that look set to further improve their traditional cost advantage.

Globalisation is driving the need for shorter innovation cycles, as time-to-market represents a competitive advantage for an increasing number of products.  Localisation agendas are more apparent all over the globe too, driven by interests in local manufacturing and jobs.  Manufactured products themselves are becoming more complex and data generated from their production, distribution and use is growing exponentially.

Though domestic manufacturing automation levels remain comparatively low, there are considerable differences across sectors looking set to shape future investment behaviour with automotive at the leading- edge and the food sector the arguable laggard here.  With much supplier and platform consolidation, the industry has seen a shift from numerous suppliers and bespoke systems to the increasing use of standardised commercial technology across multiple sectors.

Manufacturing technology itself is also developing at a faster rate, largely due to the pace of change in microprocessor, communications and information technology.  Much like consumer tech, industrial automation technology continues to offer users greater processing power, more memory, richer software features, smaller footprints and lower relative costs.  The cost comparative is true for industrial robots too, which from just £15,000 also offer faster returns than ever before.

User expectations of automation technology are changing too, but ease of use, long life-cycle and remote access to information are consistently highlighted amongst their needs with today’s plant manager expecting real-time data delivered to their smart device to aid decision making on the move.

Five key technology development areas are set to continue to influence manufacturing.  They are: industrial software, energy monitoring & control, industrial wireless and distributed intelligence, safety systems and cyber security.


1) Industrial Software

  • Design – PLM (Product Life-cycle Management) software has reached a level of maturity enabling incredibly complex design and collaboration projects to be undertaken.  Users have traditionally been in the discrete manufacturing sectors such as automotive and aerospace with the software used to develop the end-product.  Recent developments have enabled industrial software to be used in process engineering, plant simulation and plant design too, thus the benefits of modelling in the virtual world are now helping to reduce capital costs in process manufacturing and infrastructure too.

  • Integration- The extended use of PLM software for plant design is leading to tighter integration of product and production processes, a trend that looks set to offer users significant benefits as the tools develop.  In plant control systems, device integration levels are notably increasing too with software operating environments such as Siemens’ TIA Portal and standardised communication interfaces, such as Profinet, enabling users to easily connect to a broader range of industrial technologies.  This is analogous to the early introduction of printer drivers for PCs that hid communication complexities from users and in much the same way, it is now possible to easily configure and control variable speed drives, Low voltage equipment and instrumentation in the same software environment as the control system itself.  User benefits include lower engineering costs and quicker diagnosis of problems in operational plants.

  • Operation- Industrial software is increasingly being used for operational monitoring and control.  For example, downtime can be measured and reasons identified to drive productivity improvement.  Optimised production scheduling can be achieved in complex multivariate applications, with companies like Preactor having led the way. Central plant systems like SCADA (for supervisory control) have matured too and are able to address bigger data (more tags and storage) and safety functions at the HMI* or operator level too.  A good example of this is the WinCC Open Architecture system in the New York City Subway which can handle in excess of 78 million data points.  The increased integration of plant and operational IT is evident too, including the expanded use of middleware such as MES (Manufacturing Execution Systems) that bridge ERP** to shop floor systems and drive consistency in production management.  This is particularly useful across multi-located factories in a group.

*Human-Machine Interface

**Enterprise Resource & Planning


Digitalisation future of manufacturing


2) Energy monitoring and control

As the cost of energy increases, monitoring and management have become critical to industrial users.  In manufacturing, energy efficiency not only contributes to lower product cost but also brand as buyer behaviour is influenced more by factors such as CO2 footprint.

Recent regulation, such as ISO 50001, highlights the importance of energy management systems and Germany stands out here, leading the way in global certifications which may be attributable to eco-tax relief for energy-intensive companies, but only if they contribute towards energy savings.

In manufacturing and infrastructure alike, one of the fastest payback methods from an energy reduction investment is to exploit the automation system as the backbone of an effective automatic monitoring and targeting system (aM&T).  As motor driven systems use around 60% of the electrical energy in industry, implementing Variable Speed Drives to control electric motors still represents one of the biggest potential cost savings.

Monitoring energy (with sensors, through communication profiles such as ProfiEnergy and commercial software tools like BData) in the plant helps prioritise replacement, repair and management activity.  For example, a motor in need of refurbishment will demonstrate a characteristic profile of higher power demand, temperature and vibration etc.  Early detection through intelligent motor management can aid preventative repair, meaning high cost avoidance for unplanned downtime and reduced overall lifecycle costs.

However, one of the most underused energy management measures is the off switch.  Technology can help here as devices are increasingly network connected and communication profiles such as ProfiEnergy enable distributed standby commands to shut all networked equipment down, even for short periods such as a lunch break or shift changeover.  Connecting the production scheduling system or MES directly to the energy intensive equipment to intelligently shut it down when it is not required also automates the decision to regularly switch off – leading to potentially greater savings.


Digital factory automotive



3) Industrial wireless & distributed intelligence

Industrial wireless technology has developed rapidly over the last 10 years reducing cost and improving flexibility in both factory and process automation systems. Typical examples include wireless instrumentation with the reduced need for cabling or civil works or connecting wirelessly with devices on moving machinery instead of using and maintaining mechanical slip rings.

With transmission speeds exceeding most determinism requirements and increased data throughput, wireless technology use looks set to grow.  With increasingly interconnected devices too, there is an observable trend to more autonomy – devices that operate independently of temporary communication losses.  This means an increase in device intelligence as more components embed microprocessors or make data available to multiple clients.  Further to this, contactless RFID* tagging now enables product in manufacture to carry valuable status data round the plant and into the supply chain too thus addressing the need for traceability in many sectors.

*Radio Frequency IDentification.



4) Safety systems

Industrial safety systems reliably protect people, machines and the environment from possible malfunctions in the production process.  Until recently, safety systems were hard-wired and separated by regulation from plant control systems.  This approach had the benefit of wide acceptance and a skills base to support it, but suffers from inflexibility and diagnostic difficulty in larger systems.  Through international standardisation change and technology developments, safety functions such as an e-stop can now be integrated into Programmable Electronic systems.  Combining control and safety has the advantage of reducing the number of overall system components and also the complexity for users who now benefit from software tools for commissioning and operation.  Overall project costs can also be lowered by 19% compared with separate safety architectures.




5) Cyber security

With IP (Ethernet) connected industrial systems and well publicised industrial espionage cases, security is no longer optional.  Cyber security systems are needed for know-how, access and copy protection.  Users want remote access and real-time visualisation but need to know that access is strictly authenticated.  Much development has occurred to further protect industrial users through communication technology, software encryption and chip-level hardware protection in control systems.  It is an area that will further develop, but user measures, such as physical security and strict enforcement of security policies (i.e. preventing the use of USB memory sticks which can propagate viruses) will always be needed to accompany security technology deployment.