Illustration of the four major phases of the Industrial Revolution bringing us to Industry 4.0
Image: By Christoph Roser at AllAboutLean.com

Definition and a Brief History

What is Industry 4.0, and how do drones and the construction industry fit in? Let’s step back for a minute and look at the history of industrialization to see how we got here. Industry 4.0 is the buzzword that people use to describe the fourth industrial revolution. The first industrial revolution was marked by the mechanization of production using water and steam power. The second industrial revolution, also known as the technological revolution, saw the implementation of electric power systems, assembly lines and railroads. This revolution further improved the scale and automation of our production as well as the distribution of goods. The third industrial revolution, also called the digital revolution, was marked by the implementation of computer systems and further automation. We are currently moving into the fourth industrial revolution with intelligent systems that increase data acquisition, sharing and processing to facilitate more streamlined decision making processes within the production chain. Essentially, Industry 4.0 is the result of networking all of our industrial machines and systems together to provide large scale improvements in the speed, efficiency and safety of our production chain.

Rethinking Business for Industry 4.0

With such large scale advances in efficiency and safety, the impact of Industry 4.0 will run deep through the industrial world. Doing business without upgrading systems will leave many enterprises in the proverbial dark ages. As an analogy, consider trying to conduct your day to day operations using a telegraph, while the rest of the world uses modern methods of communication. It would obviously be a huge disadvantage and create overwhelming inefficiencies and hardships in your operations. As an increasing number of organizations shift to Industry 4.0 methods of conducting business, those that do not make the shift will not be able to compete with the realities of the changing industrial landscape.

However you look at it, drones are here to stay. The examples of drones being used to increase productivity or to make work a safer place far outnumber the negative examples that often capture the biggest headlines.

Chris Cornfiel – Automation World
Top down aerial image of a construction site and all of the materials used for construction (rebar, wood, cable, etc). Industry 4.0 and drones can be used to benefit the construction industry
Tracking materials on a construction site is no small job.

The Many Elements of Industry 4.0

The technological advances of Industry 4.0 will be the result of the interplay between multiple concepts. Big data, artificial intelligence (AI), the industrial internet of things (IIOT), augmented reality (AR), robotics, sensors and cloud computing are all elements of the bigger picture. Many of these elements are complex topics in their own right. For clarity, here is a brief description of some of the more esoteric concepts.

  • Big Data: A field that systematically and effectively extracts useful information from data sets that are too large to be dealt with using traditional data-processing methods.
  • AI: Artificial intelligence is a device that is capable of perceiving its environment and then acting in a manner that is likely to maximize its chances of success in achieving their goals.
  • IIOT: The Industrial Internet of Things refers to the interconnected nature of machines and sensors that monitor various facets of the operation of the machines and the systems they are part of. The data is shared for analysis and decision making purposes, to monitor and maintain the machinery. The data is used to ensure that the functions of the system are being maintained, thereby increasing the efficiency of the system.
  • AR: Augmented reality is a system that creates a real-time immersive experience providing constructive sensory information that can be used to better understand a system.
  • Cloud Computing: On demand system resources that are available to process large amounts of data, without direct management from the user.

the Benefits of Industry 4.0

At the beginning of this article I mentioned that Industry 4.0 can offer improvements in the speed, efficiency and safety of our production chain. To implement Industry 4.0 methods we first need a job site where resource availability and the state (quantity and condition) of those resources is readily accessible. The next step is to smarten up your supply chain by allowing all of the data points to intelligently communicate with one another. Finally, through the use of software, you can automate your supply chain. This can include ordering and shipping component parts as well as the planning and ordering of pre-fabricated components to your build.

With current and accurate information from your job site, a connected information system can manage your inventory through a just in time management system. Through better inventory management, the speed of your build can be improved as a result of having the required resources available when required. There will always be hiccups when relying on external suppliers, however the connected worksite can help mitigate the effects of those delays, as the system will help keep you informed with accurate information relating to shipment delays.

Scenic aerial photo of a container ship leaving the Port of Vancouver
Industry 4.0 enables better inventory planning

A connected supply chain can adjust and accommodate when new information is presented. If a weather delay ties up a shipment, a connected system can proactively adjust to that reality and modify manufacturing priorities.

Bernard Marr – Forbes

A natural consequence of the improved speed of a construction site, is the increase to the efficiency of that build. Time is money, and being aware of delays with inventory management can help you plan to shift your resources to other tasks or sites if there is a forecast delay. The outcome is better management of resources, resulting in a leaner and more profitable operation.

The other major benefit offered by implementing Industry 4.0 systems is the gain to safety on your construction sites. Utilizing various sensors, you can get the required information without putting a person in harms way to get that data. Why bother sending a person onto a roof, facade or other hard to reach area when, for example, a drone could be used to do the same task in a fraction of the time? Additionally, if used properly, the sensors (drones included) can likely get a better perspective than a person could. The improvements that can be made to safety can have multiple impacts on your bottom line. Safer working conditions improve worker morale and also reduce the costs associated with injuries.

Drones in construction

As noted, sensors are a key component of Industry 4.0 and this is where drones fit in. The ease and efficiency of data collection has a number of benefits. If the data is being used to facilitate an inspection of a hard to reach area, then keeping your employees out of harms way is an immediate improvement on safety. Additionally, drones can collect hundreds of photos on a simple 10 minute flight. Specialized software can be used to clear the noise out of all that data and provide the clear answers you need to improve worksite efficiencies. Having a person conduct this type of work manually would be extremely time consuming and costly.

Image of a drone that can be used effectively in the construction industry for Industry 4.0 applications
Drones can effectively collect data from construction sites.

Drones are a good starting point for construction companies wanting to experiment with better worksite management practices. Implementing a complete Industry 4.0 solution is a very involved task and doing so without fully taking into consideration your current workflows may lead to costly mistakes. BIM Learning Center has published a good article that summarizes the caution that you should exercise when contemplating the decision to move your organization to an Industry 4.0 solution. Utilizing drones can offer a cost effective and beneficial way to test a component of an automation solution to determine how your particular company could most effectively move forward on it’s path to Industry 4.0

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