Industry 4.0 in a Time of Crisis


Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Before the COVID-19 crisis the world was positioning towards a fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0.  The fourth industrial revolution will embrace breakthroughs in science and technology across diverse fields, including nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, distributed energy management, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), big data, the internet of things, industrial internet of things, health care for the aged, fifth generation wireless (5G), additive manufacturing, and autonomous transportation.

Although in some cases COVID will have the immediate effect of slowing investments in Industry 4.0, in other sectors there will be an acceleration. It is also expected that the time between discovery and commercialization will be greatly accelerated in the fourth industrial revolution.  Materials are positioned to be an important enabler for all these technology areas, but the applications are complex and require a multidisciplinary research strategy to understand the needs, opportunities, sustainability, and human behavior within these technologies.  

As we as a nation contemplate a return to work, we will likely face a lengthy process with ups and downs and not the fast V-shaped recovery we might like. If that is indeed the case, the federal government will have the enormous responsibility to drive markets and enable innovation through careful stimulus of the economy. The next stimulus will have to be structured in a way to enable public-private partnerships and so provide a sustainable new economy for years to come. The nation’s infrastructure, manufacturing, energy, health, environment, and education must be considered with a long-term view in order to enable the U.S. to emerge in a position of leadership benefiting all its people under this new Industry 4.0.

We must consider the new opportunities and challenges both as a university and as the Materials Research Institute. In the short term, our relationships with the private sector could be difficult, as companies will have cash flow challenges. We may lose several relationships, and our industrial R+D funding will contract. It will be important to remain in contact with those companies, and to make sure they remember the value of Penn State including our infrastructure and brain trust. In the recession of 2008 when I was running the Center for Dielectric Studies (a predecessor to the Center for Dielectrics and Piezoelectrics), it was necessary to do a lot of free consulting to maintain relationships. The credibility and trust that we created paid off in later years. There are also many ways to make partnerships with industry outside direct funding, such as with GOALI NSF grants, STTRs and SBIRs, and grants that benefit from industrial partnerships, such as DOE ARPA-E programs.

I believe that post-COVID translational materials research will be even more greatly valued as we enter the fourth industrial revolution. Penn State with its land grant mission, multidisciplinary culture, excellence in scientific discovery, and strong engineering reputation will be critical to the translation of materials discovery to commercialization. We have over many years built a world-class materials reputation in several critical domains that are well positioned for supporting the fourth industrial revolution. We will need to accelerate Penn State’s translation from discovery to societal impact, and this naturally requires highly complex data-driven analytics.

Many companies have limited or reduced in-house innovation as a cost-savings measure and rely on universities as the source for discovery and new ideas. However, for several reasons related to basic science funding and the promotion and tenure process that prizes publications over translational research, some faculty are often reluctant to engage in translational science. In fact, these factors collude to bias many things, including the make-up of many Materials Science and Engineering departments within the U.S. with a faculty balance that is much more “Science“ than ”Engineering.”  But an interdisciplinary research culture and partnership with engineering faculty in chemical, mechanical, electrical, civil, environmental, industrial engineering, etc., and strong partnering with the Applied Research Laboratory should all aid in pushing the translational research at Penn State. PSU, with its unique intellectual property policy, also makes us an attractive partner to industry.

We should also consider pilot- scale manufacturing and/or large-scale test platforms for selected devices. This would enable getting data to aid our translational strategies. By doing this, we would educate our students and obtain data to understand a material or a device to a much higher technology readiness level, a TRL level from 4-6. In many cases, the inventors of a material or a device hold many insights from the discovery stage where they worked out many issues in perfecting the materials and/or devices, but going forward they will also have to work across the disciplines especially with computer science and industrial engineering within these test beds. This larger pilot and /or testing could be also done with external partners, with other universities, both within the U.S. or with our strategic international partners, companies, and national laboratories.  

Some examples of translational research

We can look at activities in other countries that bridge the gaps of technology readiness. Notably, these have required government funding to build their infrastructure. Many of you may have visited any of the 72 Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany that focus on different technical areas and feature applied science to accelerate translation. Similarly, the National Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Japan (AIST) ha 40 sites, and all with a major focus on what they call the pursuit of "Full Research," ranging from basic research to the development of products. This would be an enormous investment from the U.S. federal government.  Previously there has been no political appetite for helping industry in such a direct way. However, the Fraunhofer’s and AIST have funding from individual partner companies as well. We are exploring with the leadership of Fraunhofer USA a new type of partnership with Penn State to aid translational research. A unique model that I have seen at the University of Mons, Belgium, is the Materia Nova that directly interfaces with university basic research in selected areas of excellence and offers services and translational technology solutions for industry.  The funding comes from multiple sources: the European Union, federal government, local government, the university, and company partnerships. The technology transfer allows businesses to test and explore solutions to the emerging research at a pilot scale but works out many issues for companies before deploying to the industrial level. Clever co-appointments for faculty, staff, and researchers, with rewards and careful oversight from the university administration, enables a very successful ecosystem without conflicts of interest. Another impressive interaction and partnership with a university is with the Advanced Manufacturing Research Center (AMRC) at the University of Sheffield. A science park has been developed with shared and managed space and facilities that are focused on aerospace and other high-value manufacturing facilities. There, more than a hundred companies, including Boeing, Rolls-Royce, McLaren Automotive, BAE Systems and Airbus, plus others across the supply chain, work with staffed common facilities either independently or in joint partnerships. In addition to the shared space these companies also have in many cases their own buildings and laboratory and office space within the science park to drive their own independent R&D. It is truly a large-scale innovation ecosystem, designed for accelerated innovation.   The benefits are clear to observe for embracing translational and applied materials-manufacturing that introduced changes in productivity, increasing competitiveness, developing new products and processes, and training new talent and skills for these companies.  One very innovative building in the park, the so-called 2050 factory building, is dedicated to far-term industrialization. There, companies undergo collaborative research into reconfigurable digitally assisted assembly, component manufacturing, and machining technologies. These companies are embracing machine learning and AI methods to provide rapidly switching production between different high-value components and one-off parts, all centered on the fourth industrial revolution concepts.   Another impressive partnership involved education and training. There is an AMRC training center on the site, where all students are placed, and the best and brightest students that may have originally only intended to do apprenticeships can get funding from the companies to transition to advanced degrees, MBAs and doctoral degrees. This has enabled many first-generation university graduates at the University of Sheffield. Partnerships with vocational schools could be a new model for the university to consider.

Regardless of our present situation with the COVID health crisis and its longer term social and economic impacts, Industry 4.0 is already happening and may be accelerated by it. Governments, industry professionals, academics, and other interested parties must partner together, making the necessary changes to be prepared for this rapidly advancing future, and provide the far-sighted leadership the times require. Those that do this efficiently and intelligently will play larger roles in the success of this new paradigm, which promises to re-architect the entire map of industrial production systems across the globe.

I welcome your feedback on these perspectives.


Clive Randall,
Director, Materials Research Institute