Epicor: the Fifth Industrial Revolution is on the horizon

By Mark Hughes, regional VP for UK and Ireland, Epicor
Mark Hughes, regional VP for UK and Ireland, Epicor discusses the evolution of smart manufacturing and the expectation of a fifth industrial revolution...

Today’s factory has undergone a revolution that we could not have dreamed of a decade ago. Now, manufacturing plants are filled with smart solutions and robots, such as those at the National Composites Centre near Bristol which are transforming how goods are produced with more durable and eco-friendly materials, 3D printers that are able to ‘build’ a 980-square feet two-story home.

These examples can serve as evidence of the immense changes within manufacturing and the supply chain industries. We are already moving from the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) to the fifth, while simultaneously occupying all the stages of progress and innovation in between.

4IR has redefined the traditional approach to how we manufacture, distribute, and innovate goods with the help of interconnectivity through the Internet of Things (IoT), analytics, real-time data, and automation. Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, writes that we are implementing and iterating simultaneously, creating new breakthroughs sometimes faster than we can apply them. “It's the fusion of these technologies and their interaction across the physical, digital, and biological domains that make the fourth industrial revolution fundamentally different from previous revolutions,".

Technologies that enable 4IR are predicted to yield up to $3.7 trillion in value by 2025, according to ongoing research by the World Economic Forum and McKinsey. However, some businesses and industries are slower than others in fostering these technologies. For instance, the study found that less than a third of manufacturers are actively implementing cutting-edge solutions at scale. Researchers point to pilot purgatory, a holding pattern where technology rests in a permanent trial stage, growth stunted by a company's inability to move towards the scale-up phase. This tendency can also be witnessed among retailers and distributors.

However, there are early adopters who are embrace 4IR technologies with an eye already toward 5IR—and it's having a revolutionary impact on businesses and society.

Automation Leads to Autonomy

Automation can be divided into three categories:

  • Basic robotic process automation (RPA) that uses technology which helps automate repetitive processes 
  • Enhanced process automation, which uses technology such as Natural Language Processing, capable of interpreting text and information from various digital sources
  • Autonomic or cognitive automation, which uses machine learning software to mirror the way humans think

For example, clothing retailer The North Face leverages IBM's Watson artificial intelligence to improve its shopping assistance capabilities. Consumers can speak to the ‘AI assistant’ directly on their phone, which in turn will try and figure out what they're looking for. The AI learns over time and gets better at understanding customers’ demands, even recognising synonyms and making highly personalised suggestions.

Over the past few years, manufacturing leaders have also increasingly valued the benefits which automation can bring to their business; companies including GE and Merck have rolled out RPA to automate back-office elements. The logistical next step brings RPA to the manufacturing floor. Imagine a not-so-distant future when Internet of Things (IoT) sensors on machines help to identify—and perform—predictive maintenance.

One of China's largest ecommerce retailers has adopted RPA efficiency, with automated warehouses that can reportedly process up to 20,000 packages in an hour. JD.com uses robotic unloading systems, barcode scanning, automated vans, and drone deliveries to expedite its distribution.

Printing Out the Future

3D printing spent the last 20 years shedding the novelty factor and finding its way into production channels and retail environments. In 2018, Adidas introduced the AlphaEDGE 4D, a 3D-printed trainer. 

In the midst of Covid-19, HP Inc. and partners began 3D printing face shield parts and hands-free door openers to help support critical health workers. The mobilisation helps illustrate the versatility of 3D printers in everyday manufacturing processes.

As retailers look for ways to further personalise products for consumers, 3D printing technology makes it possible to invest in raw materials and create products right inside their store. This effectively rewrites their supply chain and reduces inventory waste through small batch production.

From Science Fiction to Reality

In the early 2000s, nanotechnology and gene editing were requisite plot points for science fiction films. In 2020, developments like nanosensors—the tiny chips underpinning IoT—and CRISPR gene-editing technology are promising to bring these types of 4IR technology into a more practical mainstream.

Carbon nanotubes help manufacturers create stronger and wrinkle-resistant textiles and products. Nanotechnology can be used to optimise adhesives and make furniture stain-proof. It can even be used to manufacture tennis balls that bounce longer. In addition, nano sensors can be used to track packaging as it moves through distribution channels and trace the origins of food.

Although 4IR technology like CRISPR gene editing is still in its early stages, it has driven change among grocery retailers who are looking at how it could potentially impact the products they sell. Scientists already created gene-edited crops like non-browning mushrooms and mildew-resistant grapes. These experiments are part of a wider effort to prevent spoilage, a challenge that could filter out to the entire distribution supply chain and change the way food is delivered and sold.

Accelerated Revolution

Systems that resisted change for decades are becoming living labs as a result of Covid-19. Retailers are experimenting with augmented technologies and virtual reality, robots are moving from factory floors to front-line response, and 3D printers are being used to manufacture masks en masse.

The key to offsetting the impact on society will be a combination of private sector "upskilling" programs to help retrain employees, and public policies that help support the next-generation workforce and labour market. But if Klaus Schwab's predictions about the fusion and interaction of technologies across “physical, digital, and biological domains" pan out, Industry 5.0 will see a drastically transformed workforce.

The future of factories

The radical redefinition of how organisations use technology, people, and processes to fundamentally change business performance paints a promising picture of manufacturing future. 

It could be one where stores are contactless and touchless, relying on facial recognition AI and sensors to track purchases. We may live in a world where products are printed in-store or produced by voice activation and distributed by autonomous vehicles or drones. A reality where manufacturing, distribution, and retail look and feel quite different.

Perhaps it will be like the 4IR, complementing our day-to-day lives so seamlessly that we hardly notice. That is, until we take a step back to look at how much our world really has changed in so little time.

For more information on business topics in the United States and Canada, please take a look at the latest edition of Business Chief North America.

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