If You Don’t Know What 4IR Stands For, Then Shut Down Your Business

By Trevor Ketler and Leigh Harrison


Like a thief in the night, every industry has entered into a new realm – one called “Change”.

Engineering has been at the forefront of all the Industrial Revolutions, leading innovation, design, and implementation. But the speed, breadth and depth of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, might be at such a pace that you find yourselves more behind than you want or need to be.

The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. The Fourth is about the adoption of multiple technologies provided by digitization that blurs the lines between the physical, virtual, and biological spheres.

Liebherr Container Cranes have recognised the need and urgency to stay ahead of their competitors by taking a giant step in embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Charlie McCarthy, Managing Director of Technology/Engineering at Liebherr Container Cranes, believes that in this rapidly changing world, it is critical to utilise the most advanced structural, mechanical, electrical and automation techniques to design and build equipment.

They cannot afford to be complacent. They are currently researching ways to use data to connect their machines to increase machine intelligence. The future will necessitate Liebherr’s products making autonomous decisions for the machine itself and also for a larger ecosystem within which it performs.


3D Printing

3D printing has captured the imagination of industries. Lower cost printers make it possible to create objects with more complex structures than traditional manufacturing methods.

It has triggered a change in the way both small businesses and industry giants build and design their products and is starting to be reflected in today’s engineering degrees.

3D printing allows you to create prototypes, models and products out of a growing variety of materials. Therefore the cost of proto-typing is significantly reduced. Cost savings will also be realised in the production of parts, the reduction of waste and in the need for storage.

The benefits are revolutionising many industries:

  • The automotive and aerospace industries benefit from much shorter lead times than with associated traditional engineering methods such as casting or machining, allowing for much faster development and testing of components.
  • Entire cars are now entirely 3D printed, as recently demonstrated by Local Motors at the 2014 International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago, USA.
  • Google has recently partnered with 3D Systems to develop a modular phone which will allow customised 3D printed personalised features.

Engineering companies that are not staying ahead with this technology are most probably already out of business.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the software engine that is driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution. AI is the development and use of machines to do such things as problem solve, make decisions and recognize speech and visual input.

What AI brings is machine learning (ML) where technology itself can learn and change on its own. This is enabled by the explosion of data. By the year 2020, it’s estimated that every human being on the planet will be creating 1.7 megabytes of new information every second! There will be 50 billion smart connected devices in the world, all developed to collect, analyse and share data. Why this is essential is that machines “learn” through data.

AI partners with robotics to perform functions and physical tasks previously undertaken by humans. Car manufacturing has already heavily invested in these kinds of robotics. South Africa in particular stands to gain from the investment into this industry from such manufacturers as BMW, Volkswagen, Ford and Nissan.

AI’s usefulness is also in handling large, complex and unstructured data. AI is therefore used in conjunction with other technologies such as the Internet of Things, to create “smart” systems.

Overall then, AI offers benefits in the reduction of economic inefficiencies and increase in high-skilled jobs. AI is here to stay. The threat to jobs may be real but more likely it is about adapting to a world where humans and machines cooperate and communicate in sync to achieve the end goal. Engineers are required to bridge this gap between human and machine interaction.

There are a range of ethical dilemmas with AI relating to “Just because you can, should you?” In South Africa there is a conflict brewing at the moment between those car manufacturers wanting to invest in the industry here and the government who want a guaranteed number of jobs – the very thing robotics replace. The ethical concerns also lie in the ramifications of machine learning and what autonomy they then have.

These are a just a few of the issues. They are raised here for you as an engineer because working with AI and innovating in realm of AI is likely to involve lengthy engagement with governance and policy concerns.



Innovators globally are exploring ways to use blockchain to disrupt and transform traditional business models. Blockchain is the compressing of files comprising blocks of data, with each block being connected to the previous block, forming a chain.

Its usefulness is in the strength of verification it can provide. It is a development of the use of the internet that is bound to change the way we currently transfer ownership, money and any number of other transactions.

Every part of the complex business ecosystem — from parts suppliers and manufacturers to customers and safety regulators — relies on a network of transactions and knowledge that starts long before the product is manufactured and extends far beyond its purchase.

That network is growing. From support for evolving hardware and services to understanding the source and location of defective or counterfeit goods, the amount of data that related industries must keep track of is exploding.

  • Blockchain enables companies to be more efficient, transparent, and creating trust through a shared record of ownership, location and movement of parts and goods.
  • The versatility of blockchain records is ideal for keeping up with innovative new business models.
  • You get a history of activity. A regular database gives a snapshot of up to date data in real time. Blockchains maintain a record of all the information that existed before, like a database with history.
  • There’s no one, central point of attack. Blockchain is a decentralised way of storing and accessing data making the whole system secure. Unlike a centralised database, there’s no one single point of entry for hackers, allowing a secure way of recording transactions.
  • As the system of record is decentralised and replicated entirety in multiple places, there’s no need for a central administrator saving companies the costs and infrastructure that comes with it.

Many technical experts have not heard of blockchain. However, more and more pressure is being exerted from government to be fully transparent. Failure to get involved in the system will have dire consequences for companies.

Many business leaders have already achieved significant benefits, including greater transparency, enhanced security, improved traceability, increased efficiency and speed of transactions, and reduced costs.


Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to physical objects being connected to the internet, collecting and sharing data. Anything from a light switch to a machine part, basically anything that can be fitted with a sensor, can be part of the IoT.

Juniper Research predicts that the number of IoT connected devices will increase by 285%, reaching 38,5 billion in 2020, up from 13,4 billion in 2015. What enables this proliferation is the availability of processors such as RFID tags which are low-power chips that can communicate wirelessly and the increasing availability of broadband internet and cellular and wireless networking. New advancements in miniaturisation and material such as graphene also contribute.

As the IoT advances the clear dividing line between the real and the virtual becomes blurred, with the digital and physical worlds effectively becoming merged. What it allows for industry is the connection of all aspects of production to enable their interaction in real time.

Therefore manufacturers will be able to get real time data on how the various components of their machinery are performing. Break downs can then be pre-empted. In fact a system can be created across an entire supply chain to provide just-in-time delivery of materials and the management of production from start to finish. It also means that rather than just selling a standalone product, for example an engine, predictive maintenance can be offered as an upsell.

What possibilities does IoT offer to you and your business?

One likely trend is that, as the IoT develops, it could be that less data will be sent for processing in the cloud. To keep costs down, more processing could be done on-device with only the useful data sent back to the cloud — a strategy known as ‘edge computing’.

One of the key challenges when it comes to IoT and big data analytics is the question is “Do you have the right experts and skills to gather, interpret and leverage the data?”

Another is how to address risks where an entire system could now be made vulnerable because of such things as human error, power outages, internet connectivity fluctuation and sabotage by hacking.


Virtual and Augmented Reality

Virtual reality makes use of 3D modelling and visualisation techniques as part of the design process. It makes use of high-end graphics, video with a fast refresh rate and realistic sound and movement.

Engineers can view their project in 3D to get a greater understanding of how it looks and works within a safe environment and make changes where necessary. This saves both time and money by noticing any flaws or potential risks before implementation.

Virtual reality can be used from the start of the design lifecycle, through to the build and implementation stages. It is reviewed at stages to check for faults, structural weaknesses and other design issues.

Car manufacturers use virtual reality for developing prototypes during the design process. They then produce several versions which are then tested and changed as per the results. This removes the need to build a physical prototype and speeds up the development stage. The result is a cost-effective streamlined process.

As a consumer imagine using your smart phone to log into a car manufacturer’s website to view their latest model. Using AR you get to view the car from all directions – even underneath. You open the door and get a view inside the car from the driver’s position. You press buttons and experience window wipers, seat position, even flip the bonnet to view the engine … and the list is endless. This technology has made it possible to purchase online.

In other words, as you think about your engineering business you need to be thinking about the customer experience which is no longer based on a broad-based market, but a specific, unique process.

Virtual and augmented reality are technological tools to align your service offerings with what your clients are going to expect.


 Energy Storage

With the reliance on devices, computers, servers and machines and the demand to run 24/7, energy storage becomes a major factor. Along with this is growing concerns related to climate change and the contribution of fossil fuels to this.

It is not just energy sources that are necessary. It is the ability to access the energy when required. That is, specifically the need to capture, retain and distribute energy in the most efficient manner.

South Africa is in fact, hosted an international symposium on “Energy Storage and Industry 4.0: Challenges and Prospects” in August 2019.  It was hosted by WITS Chemistry department. The symposium is based on the premise of the emergence of energy-hungry devices and robotics and the widespread adoption of electric vehicles.

The focus of the symposium, along the lines of other similar research and development, is on renewable energy sources and the commercialization of advanced batteries and “beyond lithium-ion battery” technologies.

One technological development is wearable energy. Thinner, more efficient batteries are being made. These new micro super-capacitors will be increasingly embedded in our clothes.

Charging hubs for all kinds and sizes of electrical devices (including cars) will become commonplace.

Self/Assisted Driving Cars

Tesla is the market leader in making electric cars available to a much wider audience based on its price and efficiency. It is believed that half a million Tesla vehicles will be on the road by the end of 2019.

In the United States, UK and Germany governments have already given the green light for driverless cars to be on the road by as early as 2021. That is not to say that driverless vehicles are not already in use in such places as mines and large manufacturing operations.

Safety is of course the major concern although this is mainly perceptual. There is a reported case of an auto-pilot death in a Tesla vehicle in 2016. Tesla reports that this is one known in 130 million miles driven by customers. This is in comparison to 1.12 fatalities in every 100 million miles driven in the United States. One statistic states that 90% of accidents are due to driver error, in which case driverless cars will be safer by far.

The question going into the future then is “If cars are not used for driving what will be the impact on our time, work and lifestyle?”

Car ownership may well be a thing of the past as hiring a driverless car will be quicker and cheaper. The most obvious industries to be disrupted therefore are taxis, Uber, car parks, couriers, the entire oil industry and supply chain including petrol stations.

But what about mass transport in general, that is trains, buses and even some aeroplane flights? Is it not going to be more convenient, time saving and cheaper to hire a driverless car that will get you point to point, especially if you can do work, socialise with friends or even sleep on the journey?

Other industries that may be affected is the insurance industry because presumably there will be fewer accidents. Video may now overtake audio as the preferred in-transit entertainment. Any number of other services could now also be offered on-board making the design of motor vehicles a challenge for innovation and creativity.

Even this one change could have major ramifications on how we work and live in the world. As an entrepreneur, what opportunities and challenges does this present from design, innovation and business perspectives?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is not coming. It is here. If you are not planning, adapting, incorporating and innovating based on these new technologies as well as their combination, your business could soon be obsolete. As a business, what do you need to do? What do you need to do more? Speed is of the essence!



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