It is the year 2025 and a Czech CEO looks down at the touchscreen in front of her. She notices that the company’s new website is now live and, what is more, linked into all but every last inch of the factory she has built – the “Internet of Things”, they call it. Her latest customer’s online order is automatically processed and uploaded onto the factory’s network. A 3D printer then proceeds to manufacture a rough basis for the requested product. Having been injected with a microscopic chip which links it to its customer-designed “digital twin”, the product then finds its own way around the plant’s conveyor belts and has appropriate machines finalize it according to the customer’s exact needs. Meanwhile, an alert pops up on the CEO’s screen: “Malfunction forthcoming within 48 hours” – sensors near the 3D printer have over time detected an increase in vibrations and have based on prior incidents predicted a future failure. Welcome to Industry 4.0 – an industrial revolution bringing automatized production by means of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, the Internet of Things, 3D printing, digitalization and virtualization, into the foreground.
Such could the future be in the Czech Republic if the recommendations of the “Industry 4.0 Initiative Report” compiled by the Czech Ministry of Industry and Trade (“Report”) are implemented. The Report sets out three overarching goals for the Czech industrial sector: (1) Horizontal integration, whereby all systems ranging from the first-time processing of orders all the way to post-sale repairs of a respective product are to be intertwined; (2) vertical integration, starting at the lowest level of micro-production and ending with implemented Enterprise Resource Planning systems; and (3) fully computerized integration of all engineering processes, ranging from rough planning all the way to the projecting of a product’s life cycle.
The Report, currently tabled in the Government, was prepared under the auspices of professor Mařík, head of the Institute of Informatics, Robotics and Cybernetics. Mr. Mařík has pointed out that the Czech Republic is the most industrial country in the EU and thus cannot stand idly by while an industrial revolution is already underway in neighboring Germany. Industry 4.0, the professor has noted, would eventually also project into the fields of energy, transport and healthcare.
It has been of some concern in the Government that gradual robotization may lead to excessive redundancies. Yet, Mr. Šimara, analyst at investment agency Cyrrus, has called for a more positive approach to the issue; history (i.e. previous industrial revolutions) has shown that no long-term job losses should be suffered as new job positions—the contents of which one can hardly predict in advance—are simultaneously created. In the wake of the fourth industrial revolution the market would starve for individuals with an understanding of computer network technologies. In order to forestall skilled workforce shortages, emphasis is to be laid on the reform of education – a measure also recommended by the Report.
The advantages of fully interconnected manufacturing systems are considerable despite the sizeable expenses involved: the communication of each individual product with the machines which manufactures it eliminates the need for mass production of identical goods and thus accommodates rapid changes in customer demand. At the same time, the risk of oversupply is reduced, which in turn leads to lower costs.
While still rather a matter of preliminary discourse, the concept has already taken root among Czech companies such as ŠKODA Auto. The Report’s message regarding future development is nevertheless clear: if you wish to stay competitive, join the robot party before everyone else does.