What were the Industrial Revolutions? What circumstances created them? What major changes were wrought? Where are we now, and what awaits us in the future with Industry 5.0? These are all big and fascinating questions, particularly because we are in the midst of what is being called the 4th Industrial Revolution or 4IR. You only have to look around yourself to see what this means: every one of us has a pocket-sized device which can deliver, on demand, the totality of the world’s knowledge.

We communicate with anyone on Earth for practically no cost. We access a stunning array of services without leaving home. We do business across the street or across the planet without breaking a sweat.

The technologies which power 4IR are extraordinary: robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, the Internet of Things, fourth and soon fifth-generation wireless technologies (5G), 3D printing, the list goes on. But then you realize that nearly all of these things are either directly built into your smartphone or played an integral part in its production.

In other words, 4IR right now affects just about every one of us. And Industry 5.0 will see a deepening of that impact.

A look back: The (first) Industrial Revolution

Anthropologists will tell you that very few animals use tools. It’s one of the defining characteristics of humans and we’ve used tools ever since the first rock was thrown. But it was the first real power tools which brought on the original Industrial Revolution – the one a lot of us learned about at school. Steam and water power combined with a slew of innovations kicked things off in a big way from the late 1700s to mid-1800.

The changes were dramatic: most of the population went from farming and rural occupations, to becoming industrial workers instead. The production of goods accelerated dramatically (and the prices came down, too). The impact was immense and covered multiple industries including agriculture, textiles, iron, machine tools, cement and other building materials, transport, gas lighting and more. In fact, historians reckon the Industrial Revolution was the most significant moment for humanity since the domestication of animals.

The second Industrial Revolution

He may have preceded the first Industrial Revolution, but when Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” he might have referenced the subsequent revolutions. Each build on the gains of its predecessor, and so it is that the second Industrial Revolution was kicked off by the availability of better metal at a lower price (Bessemer steel). It also saw the introduction of innovations like mass production, specialization and the (further) division of labor, and more power. As in electricity, something utterly fundamental to modern society to this day.

The second Industrial Revolution, generally accepted to have taken place from 1870 to the start of the First World War (1914), is broadly encapsulated in Henry Ford’s innovations in the production line. While Model Ts are already mnemonic, there was a lot more to it; along with steel and electricity, production of the vehicles also rested on the availability of chemicals, machine tools and plenty more. And a fellow by the name of Alexander Graham Bell had a bright idea which changed communication forever. The telephone and related communication technologies, too, are emblematic of this era.

And then there were three

Things both get slightly fuzzy (because, like Blackadder, there is somehow diminished historical interest in the third) and a lot more fascination around the late 1960s through to the end of the millennium. Computers had started coming into the picture during World War 2, with names like Colossus hinting at their massive size. But by the decade that gave us the Beatles, things were accelerating and not only in computing, but electronics was suddenly a thing.

Another ‘innovation’ which ended the War was proving useful in a civilian application – nuclear power. More energy and the availability of devices like the Programmable Logic Controller led to an explosion of automation, along with the emergence of CNC machining and robotic production lines.

There was also a little thing out of DARPA, a research unit of the United States government, which when loosed on the unsuspecting world became the internet (and yes, that stood on the ‘giant of telecommunications’ shoulders). And globalization took off.

It all ended rather ignominiously, of course, with the Y2K bug.

The present day: 4IR

And so, here we are today with our smartphones and our internet. There’s a lot more to it, of course, as so-called ‘fourth era technologies’ also represent a convergence of multiple fields, combining hardware, software, and biology (as in cyber-physical systems), with advances in communication and connectivity. An emergence of robotics. Software is so advanced it’s gained the commonplace name of ‘artificial intelligence’ (it isn’t really intelligent, of course). Nanotechnology means your smartphone is many more times powerful than PCs of a decade ago. More devices are online than ever, with researchers like Gartner estimating that the Internet of Things (IoT) will see more than 20 billion items hooked up by 2020. We’re even on the cusp of fully autonomous vehicles – a study in itself, because a self-driving Tesla relies on machines talking to machines and constantly making multiple life-or-death decisions.

Which brings us to… Industry 5.0

It may be a long and rambling road, but we’ve just whizzed through more than 220 years of human history which has seen us go from riding horses to sending rockets to Mars and far beyond (Cassini recently finished its mission to Saturn. And Voyager 1 has travelled nearly 20 billion kilometers from Earth).

The elapsed time between each successive Revolution reduces (and the boundaries for each is somewhat blurry, too). This reflects the accelerating pace of development and makes a bit of a mockery of Charles H Duell, commissioner of the US Patent Office who in 1889 supposedly said “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

We should here also remember the wise words of physicist Niels Bohr, who noted that it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. However, I’ll have a go anyway.

The future is more about an evolution. It’s hard to have such inventions and changes in industry like the past revolution. The fifth revolution or Industry 5.0 will be more about getting the most out of machines and humans.

It means smart machines capable of learning. It means ‘cobots’, or robotics which work together with people. Companies like Universal Robots and Boston Dynamics are creating these machines; unlike the usual industrial robots we see today, these ones can interact within our environments (and with people) rather than being caged up for safety.

Again, advances which were kicked off in all the previous Industrial Revolutions will be brought to bear – these are the giant shoulders on which Industry 5.0 rests. Except it all comes with a big dose of steroids: more connectivity, more capability, better processing.

Essentially, the evolution to Industry 5.0 means augmenting human abilities where machines do things better (a calculator is a simple example of such a machine; a Boston Dynamics Atlas, quite another!) It means mass personalization, too, as we all like to think we are unique, just like everyone else.

What it all means for the window and door industry

Yes, it is a mad, mad, mad, mad world, just like the 1963 movie noted. But what does all this development mean to those of us who make windows and doors?

Quite a lot, actually. After all, you have that nice new iPhone, don’t you?

With most manufacturers somewhere between 10 and 15 years behind ‘the cutting edge’ and sitting somewhere between 3 and 4IR, there has already been some introduction of technological improvements. You know and appreciate the benefits of applying new techniques and technology (and you can count Soft Tech V6 as part of that!) You’ll also appreciate that this comes at a cost, both monetary and in terms of effort. And there’s the ‘coping with change’ factor, too.

The reality is that we all should be aware of technological change, because it isn’t going away and nor will it stop. We need to understand how we can incorporate new developments which enable us to be more efficient, to produce more with less, to meet orders accurately. And we need to be open to the possibility of actually introducing these developments.

After all, if you’re not doing it, be certain that a competitor, either down the road or across the ocean, is.

It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that to run, you first have to walk. Technological maturity is necessary before you can even consider say, advanced robotics using AI or the Internet of Things in your shop. That means solid estimating and manufacturing software, an Enterprise Resource Management solution, possibly Customer Relationship Management, and definitely integration across these systems.

As a provider of software, it’s our commitment that we stay across these developments and make sure that our solution takes advantage of them as and when possible and necessary. We do this as a matter of course in our own research and development.

And of course, we’ll continue to keep our eyes and ears open to any advantages we think can benefit the industry we all work in.