Innovation Cycles and Industrial Revolutions
Industrial growth is characterised by surges with an extended period, typically 40–60 years, driven by clusters of innovations. New technologies are the trigger. Results are revolutionary changes in the manufacturing process.
Industrial revolutions have two distinctive phases. In the first phase, new knowledge and applications emerge. Once accessed and financed, it leads to the second phase, where the diffusion of the products and new processes happen. Secondary innovations dominate, leading to improved productivity and price drops or increases in quality and performance. The growth may continue but at a slower pace. This stage marks the end of the exponential phase of the initial development.
Innovation, the development of an idea into something with a tangible value, flows from discoveries from scientific research. Research and development involve complex and varied operations with feedback loops, building on their success.
The first Industrial Revolution (IR1) started at the end of the 18th century, first in Great Britain, then in France, and Germany at the end of the 19th century. The technology drivers were coal, steam power and mechanisation of production. The highlights were the development of iron and steel manufacture, railways, mineral chemistry, and many consumer goods industries (textiles, clothing, leather, shoes, etc.).
The generation and distribution of electricity, mastered in the 19th century triggered IR2. Manufacturing productivity increased by adopting the assembly line, leading to increased production volume. These new industries brought with them a new source of energy: petroleum. Automobile, aeroplane, organic chemistry, new iron and steel processes and products, synthetic textiles etc., were the byproducts.
IR3 in the 1970s was triggered by basic automation using programmable logic controls and computers. Automation of an entire production cycle with robots results in zero human intervention. The revolution in information technology brought us the Internet, computers and intelligent electronics and stitched the world together through instant worldwide communication. We also saw new means of communication (telephone, telegraph, electronic mail, etc.)
Information became digital, enabling transformation and transmission. The third revolution thus leads us to Big Data, collected using sensors deployed on an extensive spatial scale. This data, for example, on the sale of a specific product in all major shops in a country, can be analysed to predict economic data relevant to such products. Problems of a global scale: food, medical care, environment and energy will now be tractable through our ability to forecast human needs and find solutions based on quantitative data.
Internet integrated with machines becomes the Internet of Things (IoT). Prodigious amounts of data relevant to industrial machines and their environment, collected by electronic sensors, will be processed by analytic tools, providing insights that allow us to operate the machines in novel and efficient ways. Estimates of the number of Internet connected devices by 2022 is close to 27 Billion (1). As a result, 463 exabytes of data will be generated each day by people as of 2025 (2).
Instrumentation will link an entire power grid or a fleet of aircraft, enabled by the sharp decline in the cost of sensors due to large volume manufacturing and rapid decrease in the price of storing and processing data brought about by cloud computing. The dramatic social impact of IoT is how it will change the nature of jobs (3). New tools and applications will enable us to collaborate in more productive and innovative ways. For example, an engineer arriving at a repair site will have a handheld device telling him which machine needs servicing. The spare parts are already delivered because the problems were pre-diagnosed.
IR4 is the product of applying information and communication technologies to industry. Robotics, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality are the driving technologies. Computerised production systems are networked and have a presence on the Internet, allowing communication with other facilities: the next step in production automation. The networking leads to “cyber-physical production systems” and smart factories, in which production systems, components and people are all part of a communication network, and production becomes nearly autonomous (4).
The world we are entering has machines which are almost self-aware and conscious. Data will be processed with algorithms and dressed for appreciation using sophisticated tools. The operative vocabulary of this brave new world includes embedded virtualisation, multi-core processor technology, advanced cloud-based communications etc. Moreover, machine functionality will become virtualised in software, enabling remote monitoring, management, and upgrading industrial assets.
Innovation, though disruptive, is also benign since it drives growth, making products more affordable and creating new demand and jobs. There is a concern that the future will have place only for experts. But today, even a child is an expert in operating an Ipad. The new generation of software-based applications will make life easier for workers irrespective of their level of expertise. New jobs that demand understanding both the machines and the data analytics will arise.
IR5 will result in the integration of men and machines, leading to advanced collaboration between humans, machines, processes and systems for performance optimisation. The number of remote workers will increase. Menial work will be mechanised. 3D printing will decentralise production.
None of this implies that human beings would become redundant. On the contrary, the nature of the human role in manufacturing will change. Remember that the First Industrial Revolution led to a social revolution driven by the urbanisation of many agricultural people and their transfer to work in factories. Every industrial revolution leads to social change because of having to re-skill for new responsibilities. The Fifth Industrial Revolution has the potential to create a classless era.
How will all this impact India?
The first two industrial revolutions bypassed us. The third started without us, but we caught up with it in the Y2K frenzy. So are we ready to ride the wave of the next revolution?
The government appears to be getting ready for this. As a part of the broader ‘Digital India’ vision, a policy document exists concerning the IoT framework. In addition, there is a substantial allocation to implement the plans under this vision. India Stack is the name for a set of open APIs, software, data sets, AI models etc. that aim to unlock the identity, data, and payments on a large scale.
A proposal to establish an ‘International IoT Research Collaboration scheme’ (IIRC), which will stimulate collaboration with established IoT providers and develop joint ventures for Indian cities, is under consideration. IIRC will allocate 50% of the budget for such futuristic projects. Setting up incubation centres associated with Nasscom and other associations is another plan.