Big tech and Industry 4.0, the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Over many decades, technology has been a great enabler helping us be more productive and efficient, and arguably making life more fulfilling and enjoyable. But when considering aspects such as environmental impact and sustainability, it has also sometimes been the source of many challenges and negatives, for example in terms of emissions from road and air travel.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0 or 4IR) has sustainability more in mind and builds on the foundations of the third (digital) revolution. These saw the emergence and rapid increase in sophistication of computing and the Internet to accelerate us to a place in both our work and personal lives that would have been quite unrecognisable just 20 years ago.

Oftentimes, big tech is associated with the so-called ‘big 5’ – Meta, Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple. These companies have done a lot to drive the digital revolution, but now big tech encompasses other businesses and is powering and benefiting sectors as diverse as remote healthcare and electric vehicles.

Big tech is essential for powering the Industry 4.0; to date, those to have benefited most from the Industry 4.0 have been consumers able to access the growing digital ecosphere, with new products and services increasing the possibilities for enjoyment and efficiency in day-to-day living. These developments will continue, and the connection to the digital world should come within reach of more of the world’s population with the economic and quality of life benefits that can bring.

In the electronics industry, this new impetus for innovation and invention will drive improvements in productivity and efficiency. Supply chains and barriers to trade will reduce, and that can be a catalyst for accelerated growth and the development of new markets with a heavy emphasis on sustainability.

Table of the four industrial revolutions over time

Industrial revolutions 1 to 4 (Source: World Economic Forum)

The core technologies associated with big tech and at the heart of much of the anticipated innovation in Industry 4.0 are:

  • Connectivity, big data and computational power
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning
  • Human machine interaction – including virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR)
  • Advanced Manufacturing – such as 3D printing & robotics

These core technologies will overlay and help drive some of the fastest moving end market sectors, such as:

  • Transportation (including automotive, mass transport systems, air)
  • Remote healthcare
  • Renewable energy
  • Smart manufacturing

Key players in big tech and what are they doing

Big tech and the Industry 4.0 is seeing many well-established industry players morph and innovate to support the needs, challenges and opportunities created by advancements in the core technologies mentioned. In addition, we will continue to see the emergence of new businesses that will grow from start-ups to become household names, just as brands such as Google, Microsoft and AWS have in recent decades.

Taking the four key areas of the Industry 4.0 in turn, in big data and connectivity some familiar names are leveraging their scale and knowhow to good effect; these include Google, IBM and SAP.  Other newer names like iTechArt have found success by partnering with start-ups and innovative organisations, supporting them with specialist engineering and software teams.

In AI, again some big names are developing products and services as well as lesser-known enterprises. The most topical AI example is probably OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot, which is causing excitement and raising questions in equal measure. This is due to its impressive initial showing set against lively debate about its long-term benefits along with whether it will be a viable replacement to content created by humans. IBM, Alibaba and AWS are among well-established names putting resource and building momentum in this space.

ChatGPT’s role in big tech, as described by ChatGPT

AR and VR both have entertainment and work relevance and are exciting areas where some well-known chip makers are branching out. Names like NVIDIA are combining their hardware, software, and cloud-based service skills to have an impact in multiple areas, from gaming to industrial test and troubleshooting, where accurate and highly immersive AR and VR are compelling and bring value. Sony, Microsoft and Samsung are household names, now adding big resources and finances to AR and VR.

Volvo engineers using Nvidia CloudXR for product prototyping

Increasingly sophisticated robotics and innovations such as 3D printing are the rockstars of advanced manufacturing. Robotics and automation continue their penetration of the labour market, bringing broader and more flexible choice in terms of capabilities and cost, displacing workers from simple, repetitive, or even hazardous tasks. This will drive productivity and economic growth and looks likely to result in a net increase in safe and rewarding jobs across multiple manufacturing sectors. Leading industrial robotics companies in the world include some familiar and powerful corporations such as Mitsubishi, Omron, FANUC and ABB.

Developing motion-controlled medical-grade robotic arms

Deep tech driving the megatrends

In the work Publitek does connecting electronic and industrial clients with their target audiences to influence, educate, and drive sustainable innovation and growth, we see first-hand the sectors that can be described as megatrends. This is due to the speed at which technology is driving them forwards. Automotive, renewable energy, cloud computing and remote healthcare are examples of some of the strongest, most obvious, and well publicised.

In all of these, advances in electronics and in particular semiconductors and sensing are enablers to overcome challenges faced by design engineers. For example, in the automotive sector, wide band gap semiconductors are supporting better and faster charging and more efficient power systems to lower barriers to EV acceptance and adoption, and move us away from fossil fuel burning vehicles more quickly. In renewable energy, similar technology is supporting more effective and efficient solar PV systems and enabling practical solutions in areas like battery energy storage (BES). In the medical sector, there has been a revolution in remote healthcare – likely accelerated by COVID lockdowns. Here, miniaturised ultra-low power electronics, clever sensing and dependable connectivity allow better care with independence for patients with different conditions that need monitoring and managing.

Deep tech and big tech coming together to shape worldwide trends

Deep tech and big tech are interdependent and together drive the megatrends. Electronics, sensing, and industrial motion control are intrinsic to the four big tech umbrella focuses of connectivity / big data, AI, VR/AR, and advanced manufacturing. All hardware associated with these areas is typically packed with and enabled by state-of-art electronic circuitry and sensors, and in the case of advanced manufacturing, solutions to support movement and actuation.

To give some examples in the various fast-moving sectors, as well as moving to electrified powertrains, cars are now becoming deeply connected with other vehicles and road infrastructure, leading us towards fully autonomous driving. A huge amount of data is being generated, processed and stored to support the concept of connected vehicles and the push towards them being driverless.

In the renewable energy market, data gathered by remote sensors on a wind farm or solar farm installation must be transmitted, held in the cloud, and used for processes such as remote predictive maintenance to ensure maximum up-time, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. Also in this sector, AR and VR can usefully be employed for training and simulation, again without the need to travel to often hard or dangerous to access installation locations.

Finally, healthcare again leans on connectivity and data to allow medical practitioners to monitor patients without the need to travel for face-to-face consultations. We are also starting to see complex procedures taking place remotely with the surgeon’s movements replicated by a robot in an operating theatre in another city or country. This requires an incredible fusion of deep tech in the form of electronics, sensing, and motion control with all the areas encapsulated by big tech and Industry 4.0.

What does the future have in store?

The fusion of deep tech and big tech can be the driver for exciting innovation and invention under the umbrella of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Advancement at an even faster pace than we’ve seen in the last 20 or so years is possible and can give us solutions in important areas that are better for us as humans and, at the same time, address pressing concerns around the environment and sustainability.