Machines are connected to the web and can interact with each other; factories go digital and AI rules. A fascinating journey through time to the current industrial revolution.
Up to the end of the 18th century, if you had wanted to produce a product, you would have to have your own workshop. Production was mostly manual and required physical operation by a person or animal. This means that people had to work very hard to produce very little.
The invention of the steam engine changed everyone’s lives. The production machine was now being operated by an external energy system. This enabled the production of larger amounts at a much higher speed. It was the First Industrial Revolution — the steam engine had, for the first time, connected industry to the developing modern world. The small workshop became a bona fide factory.
Jumping a few dozen years ahead, to the 19th century, the machines in your factory are now operated by electricity rather than steam. You are the owner of a production line, with work stations in which every worker is responsible for one particular action. At the end of the line you get a finished product. Your factory can now mass produce. The technological resources of the period, named the Second Industrial Revolution or the Technological Revolution, allow for an easier distribution around the world.
At this point in time, you still have to employ skilled manpower that can operate the machines and supervise the production process when needed. Therefore, the next stage was to create different levels of automation, up to the level of using robotics. In the ’60s of the 20th century, humans were still supervising and feeding materials to the machines, but the operation of the production line was done and monitored by computerized systems. This is the third industrial revolutions.
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Half a century later, and we’re experiencing a fourth industrial revolution — Industry 4.0. Your machines are connected to the web and can interact with each other. The whole process is thoroughly monitored, and the factory is a “smart” one.
“The fourth revolution focuses on the field of artificial intelligence (AI). The physical world is being transformed into a digital world,” explains Itay Negrin, VP, Innovation, at ICL’s Global Operational Excellence and Innovation unit . “AI is nothing new, but what makes the difference is the development of computing capabilities and the use of new models from the field of “Deep Learning,” with which machines can analyze vast amounts of data to better their prediction abilities. The combination of computing power and deep learning models enables the change that is taking place in the world of machine learning.”
Negrin’s department operates in four major fields of interest. The first and main one is machine learning — using massive amounts of data and analyzing them to learn how to operate production arrays according to history and statistical models. The second is autonomous operation, such as the use of drones and vehicles, for example. The third field has to do with augmented reality or wearable technology, which enables remote support and control for the operator. The fourth and last one is making data accessible through digital and mobile technology, which helps create a paper-free organization and enables the transfer of information from the field in a convenient and user-friendly way.
Negrin explains that the unit has chosen as a goal to spearhead the fourth industrial revolution: “Taking a factory and modeling it so that it becomes a factory of the future with all of the required elements; developing employees’ skills so that they can become operators of the future.” How will it look in practice? “Employees will receive the support of machine learning at all production arrays, will learn how to work with data, fly drones, will use wearable equipment to help them to accurately and easily operate and maintain the production equipment, all while being supported, assisted and supervised from afar by visual and auditory sensors.
Will the new conception at the heart of the revolution require a different kind of employee training in order to turn them into operators of the future? For example, by taking drone flying or augmented reality operation courses? Negrin believes so: “We’ll need to develop employees accordingly. The systems will indeed support and guide the employee into taking the action that will bring optimal results, but they would still need the employee’s feedback.”
“If to this day you have needed to get into the field and use your eyes and ears to operate systems, the operator of the future will have to know how to work with other kinds of systems and get the relevant training for working with the appropriate equipment. The fourth revolution is based on data and AI science, and consequently we are expanding the company’s abilities in these areas.”