Industry 4.0: Is the subject born from the first industrial revolution ready for the fourth one?

Paul Woodward
17th May 2019 at 09:00

Those who have researched the history of design and technology will be familiar with its evolution, but those who joined the profession more recently might not be, so here is a brief history of what has inevitably led us to the subject of design and technology.

There has been a need for skilled craftspeople and artisans for as long as we have been a civilisation but the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th century saw a period where rural societies became urban and industrial. The steel and textile industries were developed, and the steam engine played a pivotal role in driving the machinery that would make more mass-produced items. Although at the time this was THE industrial revolution, it is now considered the first industrial revolution.

The second industrial revolution was from the end of the 19th century to around the time of the First World War when the telephone, internal combustion engine, light bulb and phonograph were invented. Without these we might have no cars, means of digital communication or even music players. Inevitably, technical education would also evolve to support new materials, technologies and manufacturing processes as would the relevance of design itself.

The third revolution, often referred to as the digital revolution refers to the era from the mid-20th century and is still ongoing. A time when we advanced from analogue electric and mechanical devices to electronic and digital ones. Just about everything we take for granted today came from this era; computers, smartphones, TV and even the internet. Although, to be honest, everything we take for granted comes from the previous revolutions as well. Design and technology was established during this third revolution, in 1988 to be precise, and just as technical education before it evolved to support changes in technology, this newly named subject would also embrace elements of this era namely digital technologies. The focus on design would also come to the fore and we are now seeing it increasingly take importance over more traditional, technical and craft-based skills.

Now we are poised to enter the fourth revolution or industry 4.0, one that builds upon the technological advances of the previous digital ‘revolutions’ but where technology is embedded in society and even into our bodies. Emerging technologies such as robotics, AI, Nano-technology, Biotechnology, the Internet of Things and more are set to be the buzz words of the world we live in. If you want to know more about the ‘Internet of Things’ try asking Google Home or Alexa and then smile when you realise the irony of doing that.

While the previous revolutions were about advances in new technologies that ultimately changed the way we live and work, the next revolution will be more about the uses of those technologies. It is more concerned with communication and connectivity. It also begs the question ‘is there anything new to discover with technology?’

More importantly, how does the impending industry 4.0 affect the teaching of the subject if we are indeed preparing our students for the next revolution? Bear in mind that half the jobs of today won’t exist by 2030 and just as many don’t even exist yet so its difficult to know exactly what jobs we are preparing students for in the future.

What is certain is that both design and technology will play vital roles in the future. It's inevitable as our reliance on both increases each year. We will still need designers, architects, engineers and product designers but we also need to consider how these roles will change compared to our more traditional perceptions of what those roles involve. For instance, we will have VR architects and those who design immersive environments rather than physical ones. Games and ‘experiences’ will become increasingly popular and form part of our lifestyles. Engineering will inevitably embrace the microscopic and the massive; from nano-technology to traversing the universe!

Automation, machine language and AI will become more common elements of design and technology and while this may be difficult to integrate into the current D&T curriculum, the concept of an internet of things does open up a great deal of possibilities for interesting and innovative products that students of today can explore in their designs. What is more difficult is how to make them work without that higher-level knowledge of programming and coding etc.

However, that’s the very reason why the outcome is now classed as a prototype. If the 3D realisation of a design is feasible and designed to accommodate software and hardware that has been fully researched, then it’s a perfectly viable proposition for a ‘product’. As the subject evolves just as it has in previous centuries, the coding and electronics development in making such a prototype work may well become a standard element of future D&T courses.

What we will inevitably need to do is change our own perceptions about what a ‘product’ is and what students can design and realise in the future. If we look at the advances that have been made in the last 250 years and how technical and design education has evolved to embrace those changes then we must also consider what the subject will look like in the next 50 or so years and ensure that we embrace those changes to ensure that we are helping the subject to move forward; not holding it back.


Paul Woodward is an experienced Head of Creative Arts and Design and Technology, currently working as a designer, author and D&T consultant.