I know, you’re probably wondering – ‘what is Industry 4.0?’. So, that is where I’ll begin.
What is Industry 4.0?
Industry 4.0, also known as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, is a term used to describe the ongoing changes in manufacturing that began around 2010 and are expected to continue for decades.
The fourth industrial revolution is characterised by the convergence of technologies including artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, Internet of Things (IoT) and computer-aided design (CAD).
Industry 4.0 is going to require immense amounts of new resources to build the technology. It is also going to require an abundance of innovation. As I said, Industry 4.0 is already here, but its imprint on society is only just beginning.
Game Over for Silicon
Silicon has been driving our technology and innovation since 1961 when the two American electrical engineers, Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce first discovered it.
Silicon has maintained its role as the only viable material for use in microprocessors because it can bind atoms tightly and in complex arrangements. Due to the huge abundance of the material it makes it inexpensive and easy to acquire, which is why it’s the most widely used semiconductor material.
But, it isn’t the best. As technology rapidly reaches to break new barriers, engineers are actively looking for something that can outperform the qualities of silicon.
AI will drive a desire to find a replacement for many human tasks, as the possibilities for what AI can do are almost limitless. But this drive for an automated world will see a demand for processing power like we’ve never seen before.
Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice, making it a two-dimensional material. It is strong and conducts heat effectively, so it has already established itself as useful when keeping smartphones and their batteries cool, and also keeping wearable activewear technology working.
Graphene nanoribbons are all the talk in the graphene world. They are essentially short, thin strips of graphene, so they don’t have the lateral size of regular graphene sheets, nor are they rolled up like nanotubes. However, unlike normal graphene sheets, some of them are semiconducting; this allows them to be constructed into transistors.
Researchers have been using graphene nanoribbons to make transistor devices for some time now, but the synthesis process is more challenging to do at scale in terms of cost than other forms of graphene.
Russian scientists have recently been experimenting with a new self-assembly process for creating graphene nanoribbons that is cheaper and easier than the current industry standard. The new process uses a nickel catalyst, which is much cheaper than gold, and does not require an ultra-high vacuum. It also produces nanoribbons that are semiconducting instead of metallic in nature.
Unlike silicon, graphene does not have a bandgap, making it highly conductive. However, graphene can be doped, functionalized, and otherwise altered to induce a bandgap.Which, if the production process can be mastered in a costly scalable way, could revolutionise the semiconductor industry.
Rather than rushing to publish yet another research paper on the potential of graphene, the industry is now shifting focus to developing the tools and processes necessary to manufacture high quality graphene at an industrial scale. So that semiconductor manufacturers can adopt it widely.
The current major players in the Graphene Nanoribbon market are:
- GrafTech International
- Samsung Electronics
- Graphene Square
- Graphene Frontiers
- AMG Advanced Metallurgical
- Haydale Limited
- Applied Graphene Materials
It is well worth keeping an eye on the production research surrounding Graphene Nanoribbons because once a scalable production method has been established, any company with the facilities to begin production could see demand escalate very quickly. But of course, first the semiconductor and electronics industry will need to be willing to ditch silicon and move to graphene.
The technology isn’t there yet, and the theory is far more convincing than the reality at present. But I suspect as processing power demands escalate over the coming years the research into this will grow excessively.
Cubic boron arsenide
In 2018, scientists discovered that Cubic boron arsenide (c-BAs)—a crystal grown from boron and arsenic, two relatively common mineral elements conducted heat nearly 10 times as well as silicon. This is the best known thermal conductivity of any semiconductor and third best among all materials, behind diamond and isotopically enriched cubic boron nitride.
Far out performing Silicon and even the previously mentioned and often generally accepted replacement for silicon, graphene. c-BAs could well be the super-semiconductor material researchers have long been looking for.
“We demonstrated, for the first time, a new material with high carrier mobility and simultaneously high thermal conductivity,” says Zhifeng Ren, a physicist and materials scientist at the University of Houston and a coauthor on both studies.
“The findings point out a new direction for semiconductors that could revolutionise the semiconductor industry in the near future.”
Interesting fact, Monsanto first patented the now expired production process for Cubic Boron Arsenide in the late 1950’s. The patent expired in the 1980’s. Presumably Monsanto were using, or thought the material could be useful in producing some kind of deadly fertiliser or other toxic goodie.
The privately owned American Elements is one of the largest manufacturers of c-BAs, but I’m not convinced the production phase is where the best investment would lie in regards to this technology.
Investing in the Semiconductor revolution?
Where we need to be looking is specifically the semiconductor manufacturers spending money on research into these alternatives to silicon. Who is leading the way in research in this field?
The problem is, the methods of manufacturing these semiconductors is being well guarded. After all, the first country to find the next breakthrough in semiconductors technology is going to have a major advantage over the rest of the World.
China is out of the game, as is Russia at this point. Semiconductor and Microprocessor development and manufacturing is heading west, primarily to the United States, though Taiwan is still in the game for now, or at least until China declares sovereignty over the nation.
I will look towards companies like Applied Materials Inc(AMAT) who are the backbone of the semiconductors production process, providing engineering solutions for just about every production process for every electronic item that exists on earth. And when an entirely new semiconductor process is finally adopted, whether that’s using Graphene or c-BAs, all manufacturers will be looking to companies like Applied Materials to provide the manufacturing infrastructure.
Robots Going Mainstream
The use of robots in industry has been around for sometime. We’ve seen it creep into manufacturing plants slowly but surely over the past decade. But what has hindered wide-spread adoption throughout manufacturing, is the cost of these automated robotic setups.
Up until now Automated manufacturing Robots have been something for the big boys in industry to play with. Automobile manufacturing plants like Honda have been building their cars for sometime using a fully automated robotic conveyor system.
But with the cost of production rapidly decreasing over the past decade these automated systems are quickly finding their way into small businesses.
Programmable robotic arms like the Fanucs series of Robots are beginning to flood the market as very practical replacements for many repetitive operations once performed by humans.
These robotic arms are easy to program and can be purchased for as little as a single operator’s yearly salary.
They are simple to program and can be used for high precision collection and placement processes. In engineering these robots are becoming more commonly used in conjunction with CNC Machining. Up until now a machine operator would be employed to set the material in a machine, press ‘go’ and wait until the process finished. Then the operator would remove the part and place it on a pallet ready for the next process or quality control checks. Then repeat the process.
This can all be easily performed by a single robotic arm. There are pros and cons to this human replacement, however as the technology progresses and the rest of the supply chain adapts and progresses – most of the disadvantages will be minimised.
If you’re thinking ‘well, that just means we need a human now to repair and maintain the robot instead of doing the robots job’, you’d be right, for a time at least. But, already we are seeing researchers teach robots just like these to repair themselves.
‘Japanese Researchers Teaching Robots to Repair Themselves’
‘At the moment, the robot can’t directly detect on its own whether a particular screw needs tightening, although it can tell if its physical pose doesn’t match its digital model, which suggests that something has gone wonky. It can also check its screws autonomously from time to time, or rely on a human physically pointing out that it has a screw loose, using the human’s finger location to identify which screw it is. Another challenge is that most robots, like most humans, are limited in the areas on themselves that they can comfortably reach. So to tighten up everything, they might have to find themselves a robot friend to help, just like humans help each other put on sunblock.’ – source
Self-repairing robots that can run all the manufacturing processes is the ultimate goal for Industry 4.0. Such a setup could run 24/7 without fear of human rights legalities or internal social politics between staff (assuming we can keep the robots dumb enough to not become sentient, but smart enough to operate efficiently).
Leading the field of commercially available robotics for manufacturing right now is:
And a relatively new venture-capital backed startups that are worth keeping a close eye on:
Robust AI – Operator of a robot cognitive platform intended to help companies to solve robotics problems. The company’s platform offers industrial-grade hybrid technology, along with a common-sense powered AI for robots aids to make them smart, collaborative, robust, safe, and genuinely autonomous, enabling companies to build context-aware and collaborative robots.
While the majority of us mere mortals will be unable to invest in Robust AI, at some point they will probably go public. If they do, it would be well worth knowing exactly what they have been up too and where they appear to be heading.
Data Analytics and AI Processing
To achieve the full potential of Industry 4.0, manufacturers will need data. And lots of it. But they will also need intelligent systems to process this data and use it wisely to increase the performance and efficiency of manufacturing processes.
Companies like the Siemens AG(SIE) have already developed software for their manufacturing control systems that integrate many of the needs of Industry 4.0.
The digital twin software allows complete manufacturing processes to be replicated in the digital realm prior to unleashing it in the physical world. Everything from material import costs to material waste, production time scales from point of materials being ordered, right through to the end-user.
‘The Digital Twin’s powerful combination of multi-physical simulations with data analytics in a fully virtual environment, the Digital Twin creates new insights. By examining “what if” scenarios and predicting future performance with the Digital Twin, you’re able to make confident decisions.’ – source
Siemens AG already have their fingers (and toes) in just about every industry on earth, from traffic infrastructure and management systems to aerospace and automobiles. Find me any factory on earth, and i’ll find you something within their four walls that wouldn’t be there if it were not for Siemens.
Forecasts for Siemens over the next few years are good, with their current two year stock forecast at 40%. But this could turn out to be a little conservative. If Industry 4.0 really kicks off, which I think it already is as it all fits in well with the agendas are giant think tanks and organisations such as the World Economic Forum, while at the same time offering a solution to both climate change and pandemics.
Industry 4.0 is all about reducing waste and lowering the cost of production. Which it is hard to argue as not being a good thing, except that it will displace millions of workers into unemployment (hence UBI imminent). Anyway, I digress…. Moving on.
Another long-time player in the industry that has been rearing their head of late is PTC Inc (PTC). The company develops and offers a variety of SaaS product’s much like the earlier mentioned Digital Twin concept from Siemens. Giving manufacturers the tools needed to create in the digital realms prior to physical production.
The companies set, even at the most conservative estimates, to grow 11% in just the next year. Of course forecasts in no way guarantee anything, however when we look at where the world is heading based on what the all powerful ones have planned, PTC ticks all the boxes. Like Siemens, they are concentrating on increased efficiency and a reduction in carbon footprint.
There are more companies, likely far more promising than the two mentioned above – these are simply examples of some very likely contenders that could be leading the way for Industry 4.0.