Do Cyber-Physical Systems represent a technical revolution?

martint Monday August 28, 2017

Do Cyber-Physical Systems represent a technical revolution, with an impact similar to that of the changes incurred by the inventions of steam-engines, electrification and mass-production? If so, what are the indications of this and what can we learn from previous industrial revolutions?

With Industrie 4.0, CPS is described as representing a 4th industrial revolution (recall that Industrie 4.0 constitutes a domain specific incarnation of CPS within manufacturing – see my previous posting on this topic). The revolutions preceding CPS are described as (1) mechanical production facilitated by steam and water power; (2) mass-production and electricity, and (3) electronics and IT driving automation. The 4th revolution is then described as an “organizational” one, where existing technologies (e.g. communication, computing, sensors, 3D printing, etc.) have improved to the point that cost-efficient integration is able to provide entirely new services, performance and organizations. This numbering of industrial revolutions can be discussed, but this is not the main point here.

Industrial revolutions are typically associated with technological innovations where old and new technologies compete for a time, but where new technologies eventually provide cost-efficiency and radically better performance,. Industrial revolutions are also associated with new opportunities and new risks (compare exploding steam engines when they were introduced!), and with potentially drastic market changes, where new companies emerge and existing ones that fail to adopt the new technology face the risk of eradication. Examples from previous technical revolutions include for example the replacement of horses and carriages by steam- and combustion engine powered transportation, or the replacement of mechanical calculators by electronic calculators and computers.

In his essay on the steam engine and the computer, Herbert Simon revisits previous industrial revolutions an identifies that

Considering these insights from H. Simon, and what is happening now, there are many signs that we are indeed going through a technological revolution. Indications in this direction include the following:

  1. The ability to integrate and combines technologies from both cyber- and physical sides, provide unprecedented opportunities and capabilities. The current technological landscape provides a “melting pot” with cloud computing, connectivity, automation and AI, new sensing and actuation technologies, and more.
  2. Many new players are appearing, for example providing new cloud services related to CPS. There is also a multitude of acquisitions and new coalitions forming – the area of autonomous cars provides ample examples of this.
  3. Combining new technological capabilities with the adoption of non-conventional business models provide new opportunities for services and revenues. The provisioning of services instead of products provides one instance of this (so called servitization), for example referring to providing transportation services rather than selling cars.
  4. New risks and challenges are becoming emphasized with increasing connectivity and use of AI. An important example is that of cyber-security threats for CPS, and another potential threat is posed by misbehaving AI systems.

Considering the advice of from the past, and that we are part of an ongoing industrial revolution, there is no need for immediate panic, but it will be essential to strategically consider what the implications may be and how your organization should position itself.