The new industrial revolution taking place inside our factories
Ask most people what they think of when they hear the word factory, and well-worn images of smokestacks or lumbering mechanical assembly lines are likely the first thing to enter their minds.
Such attitudes are understandable, as American manufacturing’s image has suffered over the past half-century, pockmarked by the crumbling Rust Belt and jobs shipped abroad in search of cheaper labor. For decades, Uncle Sam foundered while competitors thrived—competitors that were more technologically advanced and, not by coincidence, more cost effective in their operations.
But today, American industry is once again a contender in the manufacturing sector, thanks to companies’ leveraging technology to hold down costs, boost productivity, and maximize quality. Factories look less like the soot-covered workhouses and grimy sweatshops of the past, bristling instead with robotics, computer-aided machinery, and lasers in climate-controlled comfort.
Economists have even coined a name for this renaissance in American manufacturing: “Industry 4.0,” the latest turning point in a string of milestones. The first industrial revolution harnessed water and steam power to move assembly lines and power machinery; the second applied electricity to do the same, while ushering in the concept of a viable third shift. Industry 3.0 saw the first applications of computers in the manufacturing space, but with human operators directing every move. Industry 4.0 furthers this with technology that can operate independently, thanks to computers that can communicate with one another and ultimately make decisions without human involvement. As Forbes pointed out in 2018, “A combination of cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things, and the Internet of Systems make Industry 4.0 possible, and the smart factory a reality.”
Industry 4.0 isn’t just changing the way factories operate, but the profile of the operators themselves. Skilled workers used to be evaluated on their skill in welding, plumbing, or mechanical systems, and while those trades are still vitally important, those workers are increasingly sharing the talent bench with people who can program, troubleshoot, and code. “All this technology isn’t eliminating jobs, it’s creating new jobs,”says Jenny Sales, one of the ReSkill Arkansas recruiters for ACDS. “Our new manufacturing world is here to stay. And it’s going to become stronger, faster, and easier to use.”