Revolutions, said Karl Marx, are the locomotives of history. Nowhere has this been more true than in our industrial and scientific revolutions, which have taken us on journeys unimaginable even by Marx and his contemporaries.
The three great engines of revolution that roared through society between the 18th and 20th centuries – steam and water power, industrial electrification and the explosion of digital technologies – are well documented and well understood. Today, we stand right at the beginning of a fourth industrial revolution; Industry 4.0, as it is becoming known in the commercial and economic worlds. It is a revolution that will forge unprecedented change and innovation; not least in the automobile world, where it will be the driving force for the evolution of the car itself.
Factories of the future
The term “Industry 4.0” was popularised by German executives in 2012 and has been championed by the country’s chancellor Angela Merkel ever since. It broadly describes the confluence of our digital and industrial worlds, and embraces everything from automation to data exchange and analysis connected via the Internet of Things.
What does this mean in practice? In the Industry 4.0 world, an automotive factory is not just a place where cars are made. Instead, it is a truly smart environment where machines, sensors and networks collaborate, self-configure and self-optimise across the whole spectrum of car design and manufacture, from the initial concept to the production line and supply chains.
Machines, sensors and networks collaborate, self-configure and self-optimise across the whole spectrum of car design and manufacture
Many of these ideas are already well established in the automobile industry. Today, every aspect of a car’s design, from the colour of the materials to the specification of the motor parts, can be prototyped virtually, without having to physically make them. Changes can be made to designs and configurations hundreds of times a second, and those changes simulated in virtual factories without the need for expensive testing facilities such as wind tunnels. Eventually, data from such visualisations can be shared not just with human engineers but with the robots that subsequently build the vehicles and the machines that test them.
Virtual reality (VR) is already in use by several car companies, including Ford, to test new designs before committing to physical prototypes. Pirelli uses a VR application called PLAY – Performance and Learning Acceleration for You – as a powerful training aid, which cuts training time by 50 per cent and increases efficiency by 25 per cent, without incurring safety risks or production losses.
VR is just one aspect of a revolution in the auto industry that is rapidly incorporating everything from artificial intelligence to robotics, 3D printing, energy-storage technology, materials science and much more.
At Pirelli, many of Industry 4.0’s principles are already being applied to its tyre-production processes; in particular while the company’s factories range between traditional labour-intensive manufacturing processes and more automated processes, it is building systems such as the Modular Integrated Robotised System, or MIRS, and its evolution, NEXT MIRS, for handling small batches of premium tyres. Car manufacturers today request an increasing number of specialised tyres for their vehicles, which is increasing the complexity of manufacturing: for instance the BMW X3 used to have four different types of tyre, the new model has 22. The Mercedes C-class used to have eight types of tyre, now it has 20.
In its scale, scope and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before
Transforming the planet
MIRS is just one example from the very beginning of a story that will affect every industry and every business on the planet in the coming decades. A 2015 report by Accenture, a global consulting company, estimates that Industry 4.0 could add $14.2 trillion to the world economy over the next 15 years by improving productivity, reducing operating costs and enhancing worker safety. But the financial aspects of our fourth industrial revolution will be dwarfed by its larger significance. “In its scale, scope and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before,” wrote Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, in early 2016. The auto industry will be in the vanguard of that transformation, as it continues to redefine what cars can be in the 21st century.