6 Major Technologies Bringing the Third Industrial Revolution

April 25, 2014
We may be on our way to a third and even more encompassing Industrial Revolution thanks to key technologies related to automation and networking.

We’ve had two massive industrial revolutions in the last 250 years. Both changed the social, political, and economic landscape of the entire world. For the people that lived through those times, the world was never the same again.

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And I believe that we may be on our way to a third and even more encompassing Industrial Revolution.

The first one began in Great Britain in the 1760s. Efficiency gains in hydro power and steam engines made it possible to use machines instead of human labor. Mechanized spinning of cotton increased cotton output by a factor of 1000. The substitution of coke for charcoal made possible larger blast furnaces and vastly increased economies of scale in steel production. Machine tools for cutting metal parts made it possible to replace wood with metal parts in machines and frames.

The second revolution was similarly extraordinary. It began with the first mass-production of steel in the 1860s (Bessemer Steel) and culminated with the first real production lines. Rapid industrial development in the US, Britain, Europe, and Japan benefitted from the first true electrification of factories; mass production; and new materials, alloys, and chemicals. The first communication technologies (the telegraph, the telephone, and radio) led to faster transmission of news, ideas, and information.

The social and economic effects of this can’t be understated. While there were clear benefits, not every innovation decreased human suffering. The wages of workers increased, life expectancy grew, and more food was produced, but the first revolution saw the mass drafting of child labor to run the new machines. Many extraordinarily skilled craft workers lost their jobs to mechanization. Unskilled children could produce more running a machine in day than a craft worker could in a month.

Similar positives and negatives can be mentioned for the second revolution. There were advances in public health and food production, falling prices for everyday goods, and vastly improved world commerce thanks to the instant communication of the telegraph and the telephone. Crop failures in a region no longer resulted in mass starvation due to improvements in rail and ship transportation. But along with these benefits came great upheavals in employment and social strife as people transitioned from small town agricultural work to factory jobs in crowded cities. Once again, skilled labor was displaced as new processes and technologies took hold.

And we may be going down that road again.

Information technologies have experienced massive increase in capabilities and decreasing cost for years now. The price-performance curve for processors, memory, and communications capabilities is now bringing a whole host of “Big Bang Disruptions” to all sorts of industries and business models. It used to be that new technologies were generally marginal, low quality and only partially innovative. But what’s happening now is Big Bang Disruptions driven by the latest in software, memory, and communications that tend to be mainstream, high quality, very innovative, and lower in cost. For example, notice how cell phones have displaced photo cameras, video cameras, day timers, watches, maps, auto GPS systems, music players and more.

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And there are more Big Bang Disruptions coming. I believe that 2014 is the beginning of a massive shift in how we live, how we work and how we play. Our home lives and our work lives will be entirely different in the next few years. And I don’t say that lightly: I am seeing radical change, the magnitude of another industrial revolution. If you’re a manufacturer, if you’re a system integrator, if you build hardware devices, or if you develop software, you’re standing on quicksand. There are unprecedented threats (and opportunities) in every business and every business model. It’s likely that nothing—no product, no business—will be left untouched.

Here’s my 2014 list of technologies that may lead to another Industrial Revolution.

1 of 6: HTML5 with WebRTC

What is it?

HTML5 is the latest incarnation of HTML. What started out as a simple markup language has evolved into HTML5, an amazing vehicle to deliver information in ways you’ve only seen in dedicated applications.

HTML5 is really a combination of a vastly improved HTML markup language, advanced Javascript, and CSS 3 (Cascading Style Sheets).  Combine all that with WebRTC (the addition of embedded Real Time Communications in the browser environment to support video, audio, and real time data communications), and you have an exponential increase in capabilities. We’re talking about advancements like allowing web pages to play video, audio, scale, mask, provide perspective, do fades, rotations, flips, spin 3D images, have vector graphics, and transport real time data all with very simple Javascript commands. Not only can you do mor,e but you can do a lot more with much less effort than a native C++ or Visual C application.

Google engineers built the shooter game Quake II entirely into HTML5 code—all of the 3D graphics, networking, local game saving, and other features are entirely in HTML code with some JavaScript. See it here.

Why is it disruptive?

  1. It kills a lot of plug-ins, specifically things like FLASH and AJAX. Skype, Go-to-Meeting, and other proprietary PC applications.
  2. The traditional telephone system we have today and VOIP are dead.
  3. Web applications are now more attractive to developers than native applications. They will be easier, faster, more functional, and less costly to build than traditional applications.
  4. HTML5 apps can run directly on any device without any reprogramming.
  5. It may make the entire app store concept obsolete. Web apps are always up to date—no updates to do. App vendors like the Financial Times and others are already shifting away from apps in an app store to HTML5 Browser apps.

How will it affect Industrial and Building Automation?

  1. More and better web presentations from even smaller devices.
  2. More Integrated video and audio.
  3. More standard, lower cost hardware for HMIs. The traditional HMI business is dead. They can’t compete with the functionalities offered by HTML5 web applications.
  4. All current OPC Drivers are obsolete. They won’t work with web apps.

The real benefit is that it unshackles hardware from software. Developers will easily build software applications that run on your desktop, phone, and plant floor display.

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2 of 6: 3D printing (additive manufacturing)

What is it?

Everyone probably knows something about this one. Essentially it is a plate below a nozzle that shoots material onto the plate. As the structure grows the plate moves down until the structure is complete. The structures can be built using plastics, rubber, polyeurothane-like materials, wood, ceramic, proteins, and even chocolate. Some printers can do over 100 different materials. NASA is testing a rocket engine it printed. Even printing of meat and human organs is under development.

Websites are being setup to hold designs that you can download and print. Currently, the largest one is Thingaverse where people upload and share printer STL files. Now 3D scanners are also emerging where you can scan some physical item and re-print it.

Why is it disruptive?

Imagine a world where instead of heading down to the local grocery store when you are out of diapers, you simply download a diaper design and print it. What value is mass production when consumers can produce as needed? What does that do to the entire manufacturing and global supply system? Who need Amazon drones to deliver anything then?

This changes the entire manufacturing ecosystem and affects global shipping, transportation, energy usage and more.  If rocket engines can be printed, what can't be? And if people all over the world are scanning and printing your product, what do you do about it? Looks like the troubles of the music industry over the last year are coming to all the makers of all sorts of widgets.

How will it affect Industrial and Building Automation?

Anyone that makes physical goods from any material will be affected. If you don’t have a major brand, a service relationship with a customer or some other prestige you could be severely impacted.

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3 of 6: Internet of Things

What is it?

Everyone has talked about driverless cars, smart refrigerators, and intelligent homes, but now the technology price/performance curve has reached a point where this is a reality. Some estimates are that we will have 50 billion web-enabled devices in 20 years. That might be low. It could be trillions in the next 50 years.

It’s in its infancy but it will grow fast. For example, for a glimpse of the future create an account and try IFTT, which stands for If This Then That. On that website you can build recipes which cause web devices to take action based on an input from some other web data provider. That site allows you to build rules and connect anything to anything. It’s limited today, but it’s just a bare beginning of how the web is going to change how we work, play and live our lives.

Why is it disruptive?

The IoT revolution is going to transform how we care for the sick and the elderly, how we monitor our health, and how we live in our homes. Our bodies will be continuously connected via health sensors. Even marketing and sales will be revolutionized though an unprecedented amount of post-sale information. Your customers will likely become crowdsource collaborators on future editions of your product.

How will it affect Industrial and Building Automation?

IoT will disrupt the deployment of automation systems in ways we can’t even imagine today. I expect a manufactured component to start out as an IoT device, take input from current customers and interact with other devices to build itself into a custom appliance, automobile or even a diaper with advanced new features—all automatically. Anything is possible.

4 of 6: Crowdsourcing

The concept of customers being part of your design team is going to be a reality. GE recently made a single cache of flight data from its engines available for anyone to analyze and propose ways to increase engine efficiency. You can expect to see this for almost every product. Your design team will more and more be utilizing data captured directly from your customers, or customers providing information or actual designs.

5 of 6: Automation of knowledge work

Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and user interfaces will equip systems to perform tasks now required of knowledge workers.

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6 of 6: Advanced robotics

Driverless cars (robot drivers), fully interactive robots with advanced sight and hearing will find use in slightly dangerous jobs in construction, animal slaughtering, and soldiering. They will be able to do almost any job.

If this comes to pass and we experience another Industrial Revolution, we can expect that it will be some time before we become wise enough to control it. Just like the first two revolutions, we’ll probably experience massive increases in productivity, life span and significant cultural changes we can’t begin to understand now. But if the other two revolutions are any guide, this one will may also generate its share of unemployment, social disruption, and suffering while we sort it all out.

John S. Rinaldi is author of four books including two technology books: Industrial Ethernet and OPC UA: The Basics: An OPC UA Overview For Those Who May Not Have a Degree in Embedded Programming. There are a limited number of free copies for Machine Design Readers.

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About the Author

John Rinaldi | Chief Strategist, Business Development Manager, and CEO

As Rinaldi explains it, he escaped from Marquette University with a degree (cum laude) in Electrical Engineering to work in various jobs in the automation industry before once again fleeing back into the comfortable halls of academia. At the University of Connecticut he once again talked his way into a degree, this time in Computer Science (MS CS). He achieved marginal success as a control engineer, a software developer, and an IT manager before founding Real Time Automation, "because long-term employment prospects are somewhat bleak for loose cannons," he says.

With a strong desire to avoid work, responsibility, and decision making (again, as he explains it) Rinaldi had to build a great team at Real Time Automation. And he did. RTA now supplies network converters for industrial and building automation applications all over the world. With a focus on simplicity, U.S. support, fast service, expert consulting and tailoring for specific customer applications, RTA has become a leading supplier of gateways worldwide. Rinaldi admits that the success of RTA is solely attributed to the incredible staff that like working for an odd, quirky company with a single focus: Create solutions so simple to use, the hardest part of their integration is opening the box.

Rinaldi is a recognized expert in industrial networks and the author of three books: The Industrial Ethernet Book, OPC UA: The Basics (an overview of the enhancements to OPC technology that allow for Enterprise communication), and a book on women and relationships — as he puts it, proof that insight into a subject is not necessarily a prerequisite for writing about it.

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