are-we-in-the-midst-of-a-fourth-industrial-revolution?

I’m not much for buzzwords, but in the course of preparing a magazine issue focused on innovations in the manufacturing and movement of goods, buzzwords kept popping up in the research.

The most frequent: Industry 4.0. It’s the idea that we are in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution.

There seems to be a general consensus about the previous three. The steam engine ushered in the first, transforming textile manufacturing in Britain in the 18th century. In the next century, mass production and innovations such as the internal combustion engine marked the dawn of a second industrial revolution. Next came the proliferation of computers, the Internet and the automation of production.

The fourth industrial revolution is a bit harder to define. Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, is credited with coining the phrase at the group’s 2016 annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. He defined it this way: “It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.”

In the automotive and mobility world, Industry 4.0 encompasses innovations such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality, cloud computing and the network of connected sensors known as the “Industrial Internet of Things.” Additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, is part of it, as are robotics and cybersecurity.

In this issue of Shift, we journey beyond the vehicle as a discrete product and place it in the context of a transportation ecosystem undergoing tremendous change because of digitalization.

The entire logistics chain, from factories to warehouses and from shipyards to delivery trucks, is evolving. In “Laser Focus” on Page 18, Pete Bigelow explores how lidar sensors are being used in applications much broader than self-driving vehicles. Bigelow and writer Dale Buss later examine how vehicle automation and electrification are changing the way food and other goods are transported and delivered.

Industry 4.0 also extends to the relationship between the car buyer and the factory. As writer Jack Keebler tells us in “Connected by a ‘Digital Thread’ ” on Page 10, each can assist the other long after the sale, by inspiring continuous production and product improvements through the exchange of data. It’s a topic we explored in depth during the Automotive News Shift Mobility Forum, held during January’s CES, an event that underwent its own digital transformation this year because of the coronavirus.

If a year of enduring a pandemic has shown us anything, it’s the vast possibilities that open up when the digital and the human converge.