Kelly McSweeney

Aug 12th 2022

21st Century Technology Drives Industry 4.0


Today’s technologies are revolutionizing the way we build everything from microchips to fighter jets. The fourth industrial revolution, often called Industry 4.0, is happening right now in factories worldwide.

Artificial Intelligence (AI), smart factories and the Internet of Things (IoT) are no longer flashy demonstrations at trade shows or aspects of theoretical factory utopias. They are essential tools that manufacturers are using to keep up with their competition. In a Deloitte survey of 2,000 international business leaders, 70% of C-suite executives said that long-term business success requires the integration of Industry 4.0 technologies into their operations.

How Did We Get Here?

Many technologies have matured in recent years, and early adopters are reaping the rewards. While it may seem like smart factories popped up overnight, the evolution has been gradual.

  1. The first industrial revolution, centered in 18th century Britain, introduced water and steam power to early factories.

  2. Around a century later, manufacturers experienced a historic boost with the second industrial revolution of assembly lines, telephone communication and new power sources (oil, gas, electric).

  3. Then in the 1970s, computers, advanced telecommunications, data analysis and basic digitization stimulated the third industrial revolution.

Today, we’re surrounded with 21st-century advancements. Sensors and robotics are simultaneously better and cheaper than they were just a few years ago. And cloud computing has made it practical and relatively easy for machines to communicate with us and each other. This fourth industrial revolution, as TechTarget defines, is “the cyber-physical transformation of manufacturing.”

Driving Technologies of Industry 4.0

Many of the same inventions that underpin today’s popular consumer technology also contribute to the transformation of smart factories. Here are the biggest drivers of the current industrial revolution.

  • IoT: Machines are now equipped with sensors with an IP address, so they can connect to the internet. Supervisors can see information about the whole machine, its subsystems and even individual components. This helps with quality control, increasing productivity and predictive maintenance. Now, instead of waiting for something to break — which can cause a whole production line to shut down unexpectedly — supervisors can use data to optimize a maintenance schedule to keep everything running as efficiently as possible.

  • Artificial intelligence: Increased automation is a hallmark of the industrial revolution. Robots and software automation take over tasks that are dirty, dull or dangerous, so people can do other tasks such as strategic planning. Previous generations of robots did the heavy lifting and repetitive tasks. Now, they also collect data, move freely around factory floors and inspect goods to identify defects.

  • Cloud computing: Cloud computing enables nearly all driving technologies. Previously, computers used servers that were located on-premise. Now, you can use the internet to store and access data and software applications on off-site servers run by service providers. This gives companies access to more computational power with increased flexibility. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) explains that cloud computing can save manufacturers time and money.

  • Additive manufacturing, augmented and virtual reality, big data, simulation and system integration: These additional technologies are helping to push factories into the future. The list continues to grow as industrial leaders continue to embrace new technologies and modern approaches to streamline their businesses.

The real magic happens when technologies combine, and machines and software programs communicate with each other.

“Even higher value is created when data from production operations is combined with operational data from ERP, supply chain, customer service and other enterprise systems to create whole new levels of visibility and insight from previously siloed information,” according to IBM.

More Sensors, More Problems?

All these technological advancements bring incredible benefits to manufacturing environments. Industrial professionals now have more visibility into what’s happening on factory floors, even when they aren’t physically present. Machines are assisting technicians with physical tasks. And behind the scenes, software is reducing human mental load by making sense of all the data that sensors collect so that humans can make data-informed decisions.

But nobody said revolutions were easy. Significant changes come with new problems. Along with its many benefits, Industry 4.0 also comes with challenges. First, new technologies usually require an initial investment, and not every industrial employee can have the latest and greatest tools at their disposal.

Cybersecurity is a major concern. As machines, systems and individual components become “smarter,” they also become vulnerable to threats such as malware, hackers and viruses. Therefore, cybersecurity must go hand in hand with all the other driving technologies.

There are inevitable challenges, but the benefits of a new approach to manufacturing are so enormous that they can’t be ignored.

Are you interested in science and innovation? We are, too. Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery.