Never before in the history of mankind have technological breakthroughs been as rapid or as disruptive as they are today.
This period, dubbed the 4th industrial revolution, is closely linked to the 3rd industrial revolution, where electronics and information technology were used to automate production.
To understand this revolution perhaps we need to look back on what we call the 1st industrial revolution, where production was mechanised during the 19th century using water and steam-powered machines and mechanisms. This initial industrial revolution was a leap forward from a mostly agrarian society and the 2nd industrial revolution with the introduction of electricity was more of the same. New methods of transmitting and distributing this energy brought about expansion of industries and greater mass production.
In the middle of the 20th century we entered the 3rd industrial revolution, often called the digital revolution, where automation became the order of the day and computers were developed to assist in all areas of our lives beyond just the factory floor.
In an article in January 2016, Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, remarked that there are three reasons why today’s transformations represent not merely a prolongation of the 3rd industrial revolution, but rather the arrival of a distinct 4th one: velocity, scope and systems impact. The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent.
The revolution we are in now uses the computers from the digital revolution to blur the lines between our physical world, the digital space and biological spheres. In the connected world we live in now, vast amounts of data can be used to unlock value if chosen well and analysed using algorithms which have been proven by research and good engineering principles.
One of the areas where ACTOM features today is the hugely advantageous area of asset performance by means of analytics. This is an area that promises greater opportunities for advancement of the group in the future.
Like the motor car industry that many years ago developed sensors to advise drivers when their vehicles require service, using decades of analytic data around performance of lubricants, lifetimes of spark plugs, oil and fuel filters and wear and tear of sub-systems, ACTOM as a manufacturer of electrical and mechanical infrastructure systems and products knows these products’ characteristics, maintenance cycles, operating parameters and modes of failure.
The raw environmental data available in the field can be leveraged to offer end-users peace of mind in terms of the longevity and reliability of their assets. Algorithms that are unique to the plant equipment – specific transformers or switchgear, for example – may be used to offer end-users maintenance based on loading conditions, as opposed to time-based maintenance cycles that were previously the norm.
Surprisingly though, the key to unlocking the value is not in the technology itself. There are many platforms and communication options available to engineers today. Never before have small industrial computers been as prevalent or as simple to configure and use as today. Previously one had to be a programmable logic controller (PLC) expert to be able to digitise, automate or monitor systems, whereas today a Raspberry pi single-board computer can be bought for under R500 and put to use within minutes as a hub for various sensors, including discrete digital inputs and outputs as well as analogue sensing parameters such as temperature.
The internet of things (IoT) infrastructure that enables communication from field devices to back-end systems are ubiquitous now, yet not so long ago they lived in the realm of hobbyists and tinkerers. Today all the major network operators offer them as simple available options on their tick sheets.
If these technologies are so available and prolific, what is the key to unlocking their value? What it comes down to is actually understanding the fundamental principles of the primary plant, equipment and infrastructure that have been in the domain of experts and engineers in established companies like ACTOM for many years.
Translating this knowledge and experience into algorithms and methods living and calculating inside an edge-based computer can become a revolutionary tool for change and advancement.