Industry 4.0 is a catch-all term to refer to the fourth wave of industrial revolution, featuring concepts not only related to industrial digitalisation and deployment of AI but also heavily focused upon the interconnection and interoperation of heterogeneous equipment and assets across entire supply chains. This implies interfacing and exchanging data between systems not only in process/manufacturing environments but also between these systems and others involved in business planning operations, logistics/supply chain operations, fintech/tradetech and other areas.
Internet Protocol revolutionised the Web through standardisation, and extension to the use of IP standards beyond desktop applications such as email and media to interconnection of physical sensors and actuators brings forward IoT. Cryptocurrencies and decentralised/distributed and secure implementations of databases and information storage representations are also driving change in related Web operations away from centralised, federated controls. In the context of Industry 4.0 and smarter systems, several key Web 3.0 concepts are coming to fruition. Systems are becoming more decentralised and self-sufficient, but still need to be integrated and interoperable to function correctly: Smart Manufacturing needs Smart Supply Chains and Smart Energy. A direct example of this is through the use of Decentralised Microgrids. Microgrids utilise smart localised energy controls around production, storage and consumption vectors and in most cases have electrical and informatic interconnections to a wider smart grid. As described further by numerous authors, including Short et al. (2021), they will likely have a role to play in powering future clean industries, through providing improved renewables and storage integration, more efficient use of energy, and contributions to wider electricity network stability, fault ride-through and other network services through AI-based controls.
In the context of a world still recovering from a global pandemic, there is a need to maximise the potential impact of these technologies and paradigms. In recognition that world is in transition, The United Nations recently urged all developed and developing nations to “prepare for a period of deep and rapid technological change that will profoundly affect markets and societies” in its Technology and Innovation Report 2021 (UNCTAD, 2021). All countries, especially developing ones, are encouraged by the UN to pursue science, technology, and innovation policies appropriate to their stage of development and their economic, social and environmental conditions. This requires strengthening and aligning science, technology and innovation systems and industrial policies, building digital skills in the populace, and closing digital divides.
The UK, for example, has recently become the first country to commit to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, and has set an ambitious goal to achieve the world’s most resilient and future-facing border by 2025. It has laid out a high-level vision for digital trade, an agenda for freeports and innovation zones, and has made commitments to strike ambitious new free trade deals, for infrastructure upgrades, and to level up the country in terms of skills and economics.
Like most other UK Universities, Teesside University will play a key role in achieving these ambitions. We have invested heavily in infrastructure, research, and innovation activities, and staffing in all three key aspects discussed in this article. Along with key strategic partners, we have opened the The Industrial Digitalisation Technology Centre, The Centre for Digital Trade and Innovation and the Net Zero Industrial Innovation Centre. In recent years academic staff within the Centre for Sustainable Engineering have also have also leveraged Collaborative/Industrial Research Funding Grants on Microgrids, Smart Energy, Smart Construction, Hydrogen Engineering, Battery Supply Chain and End-of-Life from Innovate UK, amongst others, Training grants and contracts on Power Electronics, Machines and Drives, Hydrogen Transportation and Use and General Engineering from UKRI and Royal Academy of Engineering, and strategic funding on Hydrogen Economy from Research England. Some of this funding has been won in the context of regional/place-based competitions to distribute STEM research and innovation funding and impact – which historically have been concentrated most highly in London, the South East and parts of the Midlands Corridor – more fairly throughout the UK, for example with the Tees Valley Net Zero Launchpad national funding competition.
Nevertheless, global problems require global solutions, and in addition to linking with regional colleagues through alliances such as the North East Battery Alliance, we are continuing to engage with colleagues across Europe and beyond through successful Horizon Europe funding bids on photovoltaics and smart buildings; a number of wider international partnerships have also been established including joint funding successes and MoUs with colleagues working in similar areas in Singapore, India and Iraq.
In summary, in a disrupted world experiencing sharp transitions due to digitalisation, AI and decentralisation, Universities will play key role in innovation activities within an ecosystem of willing partners in industry and governance. These innovation ecosystems can help to drive forward advances in Digitalisation and IoT to create the smarter energy systems, smarter manufacturing sites with smarter supply chains that are needed to build the resilient, cost-effective and cleaner digital economies we desperately need.
Michael Short is a highly qualified automation and process control engineer with extensive industrial experience. He holds a BEng degree in electronic and electrical engineering and a PhD in algorithms and architectures for real-time robot control. He is a member of professional engineering institutions and works at Teesside University as a professor. Michael is recognised as one of the influential figures in the UK’s Net Zero agenda.