Industry 4.0 in the era of COVID-19


- Cristian Gómez Lázaro - Alonso Corvera Díaz

- Franco Arteaga Celedonio

1. Introduction

From the invention of the textile machinery three centuries ago until the digitization of documentary and management systems during the current COVID-19 context, technology has always been in our life. As we have evolved as a society, it has developed to suit our needs.

The transformation in the economic and social aspects generated by its implementation is what we denominate “Industrial Revolution”. Making a brief recall of our history classes, it is clear that we have passed through three important revolutions: the first one in 1784; the second one in 1870; and the third one in 1969. But the sequence has not finished yet, the XXI century has brought us many surprises, one of which is the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0), which has integrated cyber physical systems and emerging technologies to increase the productivity of different economic sectors in various countries around the world.

This article defines “Industry 4.0” and shows the technological advances that it involves, which are fundamental to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals proposed by the United Nations. Moreover, several applications of Industry 4.0 in the era of COVID-19 are mentioned as well as some challenges in the current socio-economic context caused by the pandemic. Finally, this article must serve to professionals from any sector: engineers, scientists, researchers and others, in the first place, to understand easily how the fourth industrial revolution has impacted our life; and in the second place, to know how to obtain benefit from the technologies that it offers in our work areas or even in our daily life, during the pandemic context, where the only constant factor is the change.

2. Origin, definition and benefits of Industry 4.0

Being the year 2021, we are living in a permanent technological revolution, which was denominated more than ten years ago as the fourth industrial revolution or “Industry 4.0”. Originated in Germany during a governmental project, “Industrie 4.0” (German denomination) aimed to fully develop the German manufacturing industry throughout the integral digitization to allow it to face future technological challenges. On the other side, in the American continent, the United States was also living a local industry transformation, a process they denominated “Smart Manufacturing”. With certain similitudes on the concepts and methods that structured both revolutions, and powered by the support of national and international research and technology institutions, “Industry 4.0” emerged.

As it was aforementioned, in the beginning, Industry 4.0 was conceptualized as a revolution that would have repercussions only in the manufacturing sector, however, its impact was so that this idea has been evolving through the years. Currently, various authors with different approaches and perspectives have defined Industry 4.0 [1]. After a deep analysis, the authors of this article formulated the following definition: the fourth industrial revolution represents a full technological transformation of the industrial and consumption market with the main aim of satisfying the needs of the society in an era of constant change. Likewise, Industry 4.0 involves a group of cutting-edge or emerging technologies that power the socio-economic development to unimaginable levels (see section 3), generating a positive impact in different areas of knowledge, being the most relevant: production and manufacturing, Energy, Transport, Education, Healthcare and Medicine, Business and entrepreneurial innovation. Some benefits of the application of Industry 4.0 in the mentioned areas are stated as follows [2, 3]:

  • Improved capacity of innovation

  • High productivity with environmental-friendly products

  • Improved capacity of systems and equipment maintenance

  • Reduction of the greenhouse gas emissions

  • Real-time, data-based impartial business decisions

  • Business contribution to the national economy

  • Increase of the digital businesses with access to global markets

  • More access to public services (local services, education, healthcare, etc)

  • More personalized products and services

  • Development of new manufacturing methods and advanced materials

  • Digitization and integration of production processes and supply chains

  • Smart residences, factories, and cities

3. Industry 4.0 technologies in the fight against COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the healthcare systems in every country in the world under severe strain. In response to this, Industry 4.0 - with the support of its available technologies - has offered multiple solutions to combat this virus and its effects on people's lives.

In fact, unlike other health emergencies throughout history, COVID-19 has been tackled using Industry 4.0 technologies (“technologies 4.0”), through a faster and more efficient answer by the healthcare personnel with the use of intelligent supply chains, robots in the treatment of infected patients , flexibility to bet on remote work; as well as the technology and information available for the preparation of valuable reports, being a vital tool in decision-making by health entities at a global level. The result of the application of 4.0 technologies has made it possible to minimize the effects of COVID-19, mainly highlighting the following:

4. Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Industry 4.0

The impact generated by the new coronavirus outbreak has generated an environment of global instability, affecting the most important sectors of the world economy such as commerce, industry, telecommunications, healthcare, to name a few. This is where the great question related to the process of technological transformation that our society was already undergoing in pre-pandemic times arises. Angel Melguizo, AT&T Vice President of External and Regulatory Affairs for Latin America, during the CAF Annual Conference for 2020, mentions that in spite of the unprecedented economic crisis that is negatively impacting Latin America, the process of innovation of new technologies for the various sectors mentioned has not stopped [5]. Those progresses can be seen in a notorious way in the areas of telemedicine, distance learning, e-commerce and teleworking; likewise, it is doubtless to highlight that one of the main drivers of these developments is linked explicitly to the digital transformation process that had already been developed.

A subject to be developed, given the great importance that it has acquired in current times, is the way in how customer behavior has adapted in connection with the new measures imposed by different governments and healthcare organizations to stop the advance of the new coronavirus. Nowadays, we talk about a new type of “digital” consumer; someone who uses multiple virtual platforms to acquire and purchase products without requiring a physical approach to the desired good. This paradigm shifts in the way that trade has normally been set up, it has generated a radical change within global supply chains. In addition to this, the volatility environment generated by the current pandemic is emphasized: many businesses have suffered drops in demand and have been forced to lay off employees.

This is why many companies have chosen to transform their operations, making them more flexible and proactive. Agrawal et al. (2020) show the results of a McKinsey survey of industrial entrepreneurs in Asia, in which they succeeded in determining that 30% of the respondents have implemented a control tower to optimize the remote management of the entire supply chain. They also mention that 25% of the surveyed group is currently developing automation programs due to the lack of staff and the sanitary measures imposed. These technological advances are supported by the utilization of artificial intelligence and autonomous learning, along with the management of large amounts of information under a holistic environment (Big Data) [6]

In Peru, various initiatives related to the use of Industry 4.0 technologies to address the advance of the new coronavirus have appeared. Fab Labs (digital fabrication workshops) have become important allies to achieve this goal. They have a distributed production system that allows them to efficiently supply personal protective equipment to medical staff who are on the front line, which is capable of producing up to 2000 face shields a day. This integrated work is called SimbioCreación [7]. Similarly, by mid-2020 the company "Hytera" made a donation of medical material and professional radio communication equipment, which have an advanced intelligent technology system capable of being integrated into the public safety network for greater control of communications between the medical team and the staff in charge of the assistance, monitoring and care of patients with Covid-19 [8].

5. Challenges and prospects for Industry 4.0 in the era of COVID-19

After having obtained an overview of Industry 4.0, its technologies, and its impact on COVID-19, it is necessary to mention some challenges and prospects for Industry 4.0 in this “new normal” both nationally and internationally.

Lack of trust

Trust is an invaluable and necessary factor in every negotiation and transaction. Due to the current pandemic, neither party to a process can physically interact; even more, since everything is being digitized, meetings and even negotiations are carried out in a videoconference, something that until now we had not experienced. A lack of visibility and an excess of information are the main causes of the lack of trust in any process according to Katunzi [9]. Therefore, it is necessary to implement integrated systems with adequate traceability to reduce trust problems and ensure the quality of the product or service throughout the entire value chain. This is how 4.0 Blockchain technology emerged, which allows the parties in a process to exchange value without the need of intermediaries or "trusted third parties", those institutions that regulate and supervise transactions in a "safe" manner such as banks, notaries, insurance companies, among others. In this way, trust would be provided to the network itself, or in other words to the "underlying technology": an interconnected and decentralized network of certifiers (which work based on Artificial Intelligence) that will validate each operation carried out [10]. Still in the research and development phase, Blockchain has the potential to verify and monitor transactions and processes from the supply chain to the delivery of the product to the final consumer transparently and fairly. It all sounds very promising, but why hasn't any country applied it on a large scale yet? Blockchain represents not only an economic challenge but also a 360 ° change in various labor paradigms (social challenge). Therefore, for various First World countries, it is a scalable technology with future projection; and at the same time, a challenge in the present that could contribute to our main hope during this pandemic: the adequate distribution of vaccines against COVID-19.

Lack of flexibility of global supply chains

Currently, uncertainty is one of the most disruptive factors that has affected the business development of all companies involved in the supply chain globally. As a result, many of these organizations have begun to develop strategies that allow them to make their operations more flexible with the aim of being able to supply the current volatile demand by developing a more collaborative, comprehensive and adaptive work [11], all this in an environment characterized by the increase in the unemployment rate, limited sources of financing, as well as new restrictions on mobilization through road, land and sea corridors.

As a consequence of the abovementioned logistics 4.0 emerges as a means of direct communication between industry, products, logistics, people and machines, based on the automation of production through the digitization of processes [12]. This involves in a more advanced way the field of hyperconnectivity between sensors and devices, use of intelligent algorithms, hosting databases in the cloud and processing large amounts of data in real time; these elements being characteristic of Industry 4.0 [13]. However, the implementation of these technologies requires an arduous and joint effort that can only be achieved through the integration of all the stakeholders involved in the fight against the new coronavirus.


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