Ready or not, the fourth industrial revolution is upon us.
Smart machines, smart factories, artificial intelligence and sensor technology are ushering in a new age of engineering technology that will impact every aspect of our daily lives, said Ron Ulseth, Bell Program director at Iron Range Engineering at Mesabi Range College in Virginia.
“The world of engineering is shifting under our feet and people don’t even know it,” said Ulseth. “We’re in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution.”
Robotics, cloud computing, 3D printing, advanced wireless technologies, autonomous personal vehicles and autonomous delivery are all part of the technology revolution that’s changing the way the world does business, said Ulseth.
Sensors, he said, will in the future monitor everything from personal health to transportation and manufacturing.
“I was eating a sugar cookie the other night while wearing a glucose monitor,” said Ulseth. “An hour later my doctor texted me and said, ‘Ron, what’s going on’? Earlier in the day I was working out and my Fitbit was sending my vitals to my doctor.”
America’s first industrial revolution took the nation from horse and buggies to steam power. The second industrial revolution brought mass assembly line production. The third industrial revolution resulted in computers and the internet.
The fourth industrial revolution is now occurring across the globe, said Ulseth. “But you’re only starting to hear people talking about it now. These sensors are everywhere. As we move into this world, these sensors will be sending real-time information. They will even have sensors for when you run low on Tide for washing your clothes. The sensors will then automatically order new Tide for you.”
Dan Ewert, an Iron Range Engineering professor, says the revolution is bringing frequent, rapid changes in technology.
“The changes are massive, massive,” said Ewert. “Artificial intelligence and machine learning are advancing rapidly. To me, the political, socioeconomic impact of this is something we really need to think about.”
A big part of the fourth revolution will result in machines replacing the labor that some people now provide, Ewert said. “We are now moving into another industrial revolution where there’s going to be a large displacement of people.”
Some Northland companies have already recognized the smart learning revolution and are taking steps to reshape their businesses and workforce to the changes, said Ewert.
At Superior-based Lakehead Constructors, industrial maintenance, construction and support functions all use new technologies, said Kirk Ilenda, director of business development.
“In the industrial maintenance and construction world, we are in some exciting times as new, young tradespeople are teamed up with new technology to ensure we continue to improve our safety and performance of our work for our customers,” said Ilenda.
For example, 3D modeling within Lakehead Constructors’ architecture/engineering department helps the company’s estimating department in project understanding and quantity takeoffs, Ilenda said. 3D scanning also is used to evaluate construction site conditions and for scanning steel structures, pipe, conveyors, duct work and other equipment scheduled for modification at existing structures. Technology to track truckloads of construction materials allow for accurate inventory tracking and just-in-time delivery, saving time and increasing productivity and accuracy. Even individual tools that are used by contractors in construction projects can be tracked using a Milwaukee One-Key Bluetooth based system, said Ilenda.
Lakehead Constructors’ industrial coatings group is currently evaluating a robotic abrasive blasting apparatus that attaches to the inside and outside of large storage tanks, improving safety and efficiency, he said. The robot is controlled from the ground by an operator.
Other technology on the horizon for Lakehead Constructors includes modularized or prefabrication construction that’s produced in a factory and shipped as kits to construction sites for assembly. 3D technology can produce pre-fabricated construction kits all the way down to metal studs, Ilenda said. “We are continually searching and evaluating new technology. Some future technology includes products that make our self-performing tradespeople safe and more productive. Also, we are looking into better ways to track labor and equipment.”
At Duluth-based Minnesota Power, smart technology is improving reliability, customer experience and helping with energy conservation, said Frank Fredrickson, vice president of customer experience.
“We continue to add smart infrastructure that can make for more reliable delivery, such as breakers that can automatically re-close (to keep) the power on for customers,” said Fredrickson. “I believe we’re also the first in the state with AMI meter infrastructure that gets customers a time-of-use rate structure that helps our customers get pricing when energy is more affordable.”
Minnesota Power uses smart technology in other areas such as in customer billing and at wind turbines and generation facilities, said Fredrickson. The “myaccount app” shows outage areas and restoration times. Customers can review how much energy their houses are using on a 15-minute or hourly signal.
All of Minnesota Power’s industrial customers employ advanced technologies, said Fredrickson. One of Minnesota Power’s biggest customers, a Northeastern Minnesota iron ore mining operation, is currently looking to hire data scientists to help meet the smart technology changes it will need to do business in the future, said Ewert.
As smart technology displaces more workers, new methods of learning will need to be implemented, Ewert said, including reskilling workers on a large scale via innovative formats. “I think we’re going to see education be very different in the future. You won’t see people going back to school and sitting in class. There are literally thousands of classes you can take online for free and projects that people can work on for a real company.”
Bringing society along on the ride of the fourth industrial revolution can be challenging, Ewert said, “But there’s good people that can come up with good solutions that have an impact.”