Defining the Age of Disruption

March 13, 2017
What technology will we remember as the defining element of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? 3D Printing? IoT? I have a theory...

For the last five years, I have been searching for the defining technology of our age. For a minute, it looked like this was going to be 3D printing. And, I guess it sort of is. But then it was digitization—everything went online, everything had a digital twin. And, I suppose that theory mostly holds true as well. And then IoT came along…

If you tie all of these together, you have a pretty coherent picture of what is happening right now. Call it Smart Manufacturing or Industry 4.0, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or whatever clever name we’re going with today.

And that’s fine in general, but it doesn’t really answer my question. What is this age? What is driving all of this? What is this era going to truly be known for?

It was my goal to figure this out CES in February. I figured, with all the cutting edge stuff (literally) flying about, the defining technologies of this era should be pretty apparent. I would finally have my answer.

I was both right and wrong, I think.

I was right in the sense that, yes, the defining technology of this whole exciting era was definitely there. It was everywhere; it was all around me, in everything, working everything, doing everything, enabling everything I saw, from drones to phones to smart helmets.

I was wrong in the sense that this technology was anything but apparent. It was practically invisible. It was in everything and doing everything, but no one ever noticed. And it’s not even a new technology. It’s sensors.

Sensor technology has quietly sneaked its way into our lives. They’ve grown smaller, they’ve grown smarter, they’ve grown less expensive. And in the process they have taken a place in everything around us. They’re controlling our light switches, our cars, our phones, our gloves and tools and every aspect of our lives.

The Internet of Things is really just an Internet of sensors. Digitization is just making sense of sensor data. Want to know how your 3D printing project is coming along? Sensors. How far have you walked today? Sensors. What’s your plant OEE? Sensors.

Now, if it’s true that this is the era of sensors, I think we might have the beginning of a framework on how to proceed.

Rather than looking at the world as a mess of clever new devices and new technologies we need to vet and explore, we can look at it as just a network of sensors.

What do we need to track? Can we put a sensor there? What don’t we know? Can we put a sensor there?

In this sense, Industry 4.0 becomes a much more manageable concept. There are things that we can buy, there are things that we can install, there is work that we can do to start moving into this revolution or epoch change or whatever it is.

We’re not stumbling around in the dark trying to catch up with the big money innovators. We have sensors. We just need to know where to put them.