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In referring to the Industrial Revolution, the implication is that there’s only been one of them. It is, however, more useful to think about a sequence of revolutions – because industrial innovation comes in waves.

Here’s an very brief historical overview: The first industrial revolution, which began in Britain in the latter part of the 18th century, was about the transition from hand production to powered machinery. The second industrial revolution took place in a number of countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during which manufacturing was supercharged by oil, electrification and the production line. The third industrial revolution is the digital revolution we’re still living through.

The automation of industry has been a work in progress for several decades now – and, so far, we’ve seen it go hand-in-hand with globalisation and the rise of China as a manufacturing superpower. But according to some experts, we’re getting to a tipping point that could remake the world.

The impending revolution is the subject of a must-read report by James Temperton for Wired:

“Factories are about to get smarter. The machines that make everything from our phones to our sandwiches rely on creaking technology – but not for long. ‘We will have a fourth industrial revolution,’ says professor Detlef Zühlke, a lead researcher in the factories of the future. And that fourth revolution is all about making factories less stupid.

“Zühlke and his team have spent the past decade developing a new standard for factories, a sort of internet of things for manufacturing. ‘There will be hundreds of thousands of computers everywhere’ Zühlke tells ‘Some of these technologies will be disruptive’.”

Temperton describes a prototype facility at Kaiserslautern in Germany:

“The demo factory is currently producing business card holders. Each module performs a different task and they can be rearranged into any order, with the modules able to understand when it is their turn to carry out a task. A storage module feeds into an engraver, a robot arm, a laser marker, a quality control module and so forth. New modules can be added at any time, a process Zühlke compares to playing with Lego.”

What makes this modular “plug and play” approach so revolutionary? Well, for a start it could alter the economics of globalisation:

“The shift to smaller, more flexible manufacturing could allow companies to operate closer to their customers, potentially revitalising manufacturing in struggling economies. ‘It will make manufacturing more affordable in high wage countries,’ Zühlke explains, posing a ‘major threat to China’.”

Then there’s the fact that the modularity of this emerging technology requires it to be developed around common technical standards. Standardisation not only maximises the productive potential of the tech, but also the earning potential of the workers using it. This is for reasons explained by Timothy Lee in a fascinating piece for Vox:

“…many workers today face the same problem textile workers faced in 1845: until technology is standardized, it’s difficult to profit from investments in new skills.

“Early textile companies built their looms in slightly different ways, and they were constantly tinkering with them. These differences made job-hopping difficult. Someone who had mastered one company’s equipment wouldn’t necessarily be more productive at other mills in town…”

With limited options, textile workers were at a disadvantage in wage negotiations. However, with the standardisation of weaving technology later in the 19th century, workers’ skills became more marketable and wages went up. There are other examples of this effect, such as the adoption of the standard QWERTY layout for keyboards – which meant that would-be typists could pay for training in the certain knowledge of its applicability.

The fourth industrial revolution – which is all about standardisation – is therefore of huge significance. Not only do smart factories have the potential to bring high-end manufacturing jobs back to our shores, they would also allow working people to make the most of (and from) their skills.

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