As engineering managers we have a natural interest in science and technology, including how technologies can be commercialized for practical benefits. Indeed, commercialization of technology for industrial purposes has been undertaken across many applications and of course for many years. Historians have described in detail the Industrial Revolution, or First Industrial Revolution, as the period from ca. 1760 to 1830, where the manufacture of materials transitioned from hand production methods to the use of mechanization and machines in factories.
Growing up as a boy in the United Kingdom in the county of Nottinghamshire (famed for the legend of Robin Hood), I recall visiting a place called Cromford Mill, which was the world's first water-powered cotton spinning mill – developed in 1771 by the industrialist Richard Arkwright in Cromford, Derbyshire. Even today, this is an impressive facility and has been named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This form of industrialization powered forward the first industrial revolution and the resulting changes that occurred thereafter.
Bringing the story up-to-date, many people now believe that we are potentially in the midst of a new industrial revolution, which is the fourth one. Innovation 4.0 can be regarded as a collection of different but related technologies that enable integration between physical and digital systems. The related technologies include cyber-physical systems, the industrial internet of things, artificial intelligence, autonomous robots, simulation, system integration, big data and big analytics, additive manufacturing (3D-printing), augmented reality, cloud computing and cybersecurity. Looking ahead it is likely that adoption of 5G wireless technology for digital cellular networks, with much faster download speeds, will help to power forward adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies.
Industry 4.0 technologies are already enabling a step-change in productivity improvements in the advanced manufacturing sector, for example, in the production of automotive vehicles. But Industry 4.0 also has the potential to enable major levels of disruptive innovation in other industrial sectors. Examples include smart delivery of materials to companies, where inventory levels are remotely monitored and replacement products are delivered by driverless vehicles. Just-in-time custom manufacturing through additive manufacturing on-site enabling reductions in manufacturing and distribution costs. Intelligent transportation networks supporting driverless operation of cars. Automation of repetitive tasks such as data entry and low level accounting practices.
Alongside these opportunities there will also be challenges created – certain jobs and professions may even become redundant – although this also occurred in previous industrial revolutions. Apparently, when steam-powered locomotive trains and cars with internal combustion engines were introduced, there was no longer a need for many of the workers associated with horse-drawn carriages (such as blacksmiths). Equally, many new jobs were created, for example, through the manufacture of complex machinery to enable more efficient agriculture. Consequently, there are likely to be new professions created as part of the adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies.
As new professions are created and the nature of engineering jobs changes, there will still be a need for managers to oversee the development and implementation of new technologies – managers with a technical background and this includes engineering managers. This represents a key opportunity for engineering managers to help capitalize on the emerging technologies (such as those associated with Industry 4.0) and it is important to have an up-to-date awareness of such technological developments. From an academic education perspective, there is a need to ensure engineering management programs are structured appropriately, according to both a technical and pedagogic perspective, to deliver graduating engineers with skills aligned with industry’s requirements as Industry 4.0 gathers pace over the coming years.
We should also ensure that our society’s products (such as the Engineering Management Body of Knowledge and Engineering Management Handbook) are updated to reflect these and other technological advancements. Nevertheless, in this time of emerging technologies, changing and new jobs as well as new industries and technological changes that may impact our lives in different ways, it is an exciting time to be working in engineering management. Some of the Industry 4.0 technologies may ultimately make a bigger impact than others, but having a good background and understanding of engineering management means we can not only be spectators but also participants in the current industrial revolution as well as future ones.
Dr. Simon Philbin