By sheer coincidence, I participated in three online conferences this week. By greater coincidence, they all related somehow to the fourth industrial revolution. The first conference was a webinar organized by Kerem Tech, the Galil Tech and Startup Community, to introduce industrial engineering students to the real world of industry. The following day, the Braude School of Engineering had its annual pre-academic school year meeting online and discussed various aspects of the current and future distance learning. Finally, I participated in a large event organized by the Galilee Accelerator for Smart Industry, the Braude School of Engineering and various local and national government entities to discuss industry 4.0 and offer opportunities to connect aspiring startups to established enterprises. All this zooming provided me with a wave of knowledge and some understanding of the current technological revolution in terms of progress, process, leaders and personal cost.
As I learned, according to the approach, four industrial revolutions have occurred. The first one was around 1765 when industry began applying large scale mechanization. The practical application of an internal combustion engine in 1870 completed changed the landscape. In 1969, the invention and use of semiconductors introduced mass use of computers. Finally, currently, Industry 4.0 is implementation of automation to replace many functions currently done by people and create mass real-time integration of data and processes.
Like all the previous revolutions, the progress of automation has been very uneven. Smart factories, houses and even towns have been built but they represent an extremely small part of the total picture. In industry, as one speaker mentioned, in many factories, workers still manually carry out the quality control process. Even when automated systems are used, they tend to send the data to a cloud for further analysis instead of being available real-time, often due to the multiplicity of systems and data types. Education is still stuck somewhere between the second and third revolution with chairs, tables and markers co-existing with tablets, laptops and Moodle. The temporary ceasing of frontal lessons due to the Corona virus has given the development of remote learning techniques an incredible boost but afterwards the natural conservatism of the system, among other factors, will at best lead to some type of hybrid teaching structure. If someone has any doubt regarding the resisting power of tradition, the French were still making planes one at a time in 1939, some 30 years after Ford began mass production of the Model T. Thus, it is reasonable to believe that this fourth revolution will take a long time before it becomes the norm even under the pressure of the Corona and its aftermath.
Another aspect of this process that struck me was how difficult it was to simplify processes in order to allow automation. One presenter after another emphasized the need for commitment, patience and outside experts to patience create patience effective integration. In education, this same multiplicity of systems is currently complicating life for both students and lecturers, who are struggling to manage the various means of communication, each with its own logic and combination of features. However natural the revolution may seem (as in Marx and Engel’s theory of political economics), in practice, the transition is demanding in terms of physical resources and people.
Listening to the various entrepreneurs and fascinating ideas as well as the presentations on various factories and colleges that have already introduced changes to one degree or another, I noticed the driving power of people with ideas. These pioneers, young and old, see that it was not only possible but beneficial to “do it” another way. They may not fully grasp the consequences of the changes they propose but they know that the old way leads to irrelevancy and bankruptcy. The examples of IBM and Sears as well as the whole education systems pop immediately to mind. While the need to stay in business or to attract students may be the force leading to implementation, the small but growing number of process engineers, industrial and educational, are the creative power behind the revolution. Revolution involves both pushing and pulling.
Yet, as a bit of a dinosaur, I cannot help but ask one question: who benefits from revolutions? It is clear the mill owners of then and the multinational online companies today, including their stockholders, have certainly profited. On a certain level, workers overall face less physical risk and earn more than they did in the past while consumers have much wider variety of affordable items to purchase. Even today’s students have the luxury of attending the lecture when it is convenient for them and even viewing it several times. Yet, it is unclear whether the average worker, consumer or student is fundamentally happier in spite of the improvement of the material situation. This concern may be wistful, too philosophical or even irrelevant but as revolutions do not progress on an even pace, they do not benefit all parties equally.
It is my hope that the Industry 4.0 resembles the evolutions of humans under Darwin’s classic theory: slow but relentless progress. It is probable that in the future all houses and factories will resemble Asimov’s house in There will come soft rains and education will be both online and effective. Until then, I will strive to follow and enjoy the process as well as participate in further conferences.
*Captions open your pictures to the blind.
Picture: Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/geralt-9301/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=3885331">Gerd Altmann</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=3885331">Pixabay</a>