There has been much written recently about Industry 4.0, and rightly so as it's a huge and far-reaching concept that will have an enormous impact on our design and manufacturing industries in the coming years. Even so, Industry 4.0 is just part of an idea that is much, much bigger; something known as the "circular economy".
The idea of the circular economy has been around for a few years, but only recently has it gained some global momentum. To quote from the very informative Ellen Macarthur Foundation website: "A circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design, and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times. The concept distinguishes between technical and biological cycles."
So what has this got to do with Industry 4.0, design and manufacturing?
The electronics manufacturing industry has made some progress in recent years on materials and waste management, recycling and energy efficiency initiatives. RoHS, WEEE and ISO 14001, for example, are all well-known and established. Perhaps though, we haven't made quite so much progress on design of product and manufacturing processes to help facilitate better use of materials. Industry 4.0 goes some way towards addressing this.
Intelligence built in
For example, much has been written about manufacturing moving towards "servitised" business models; essentially, replacing a product with a service. Equipment may then be procured as part of a service contract rather than an outright capital purchase. That equipment – and this goes for both industrial and consumer markets – will have to be designed not only with repair in mind, but also with an upgrade path. The end user will still be wanting the latest and greatest design and technology. The "take, make, dispose" model will gradually become more unsustainable – i.e. expensive - both in terms of disposing of old product and buying an entirely new one. So there will be demand for spares and customised upgrades. This will then drive the need for "print on demand" parts and flexible manufacturing systems – all key Industry 4.0 topics.
An interesting link between design, manufacturing and recycling is the use of "intelligent" materials. These materials can tell the world around them what they are, where they are, and what needs to be done with them. From a manufacturing perspective, the material can easily be booked in, stored and moved to the right production area; it also then tells the manufacturing equipment how to form it into the end product. The material essentially becomes an asset that can be tracked, and of course re-used, rather than just a consumable. Ultimately, it will monitor its own condition and call for repair or replacement before it fails, then provide the information to allow it to be recycled effectively.
Shaping the future
You might be forgiven for thinking all of these schemes seem very grand. Brilliant and exciting concepts that might well save the world, but maybe a little far-fetched; after all, right here and now we're doing OK the way we are, aren't we? You might also think there's nothing new to all this. Some might remember the days when TVs were rented rather than bought, and repaired when they went wrong. So why take a step back in time to an old way of using equipment? Why bother with all this now?
The answer is simple: it's because we have to.
The world's population is growing. "Developing" countries are now "developed". We are consuming more and more, and our resources are finite. If we don't change the way we do things, those resources WILL run out, and much sooner than we would like to think.
So by starting to at least think about these concepts, and what they mean to us as designers and manufacturers, we're not just helping ensure the survival of our industries and companies, but also shaping our future way of life.