The COVID-19 crisis stretched manufacturing and other industries to their limits as challenges in the supply chain resulted in shortages of toilet paper, sanitizer, and other critical items. As one data point to the pandemic’s impact, U.S. industrial production dropped 16.5 percent year over year, and U.S. total factory orders dropped 22.7 percent year over year in April 2020.

Many issues have since been ironed out or are being solved. Still, many manufacturing businesses are looking to new technologies to ensure the same problems don’t reoccur in a post-COVID world.

One way to do this is through Industry 4.0, a term that refers to the next advancement of technology.  Industry 4.0 includes trends like the Internet of Things, robotics, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence that allow for increased computer automation in manufacturing environments or machines to complete more tasks independently.

Industry 4.0 follows previous industrial revolutions, including steam power, electricity, assembly lines, and computers. These industrial revolutions significantly advanced factory and manufacturing environments with similar outcomes expected from this latest iteration in technology.

Adopting automation and smart technologies included in Industry 4.0 can help manufacturing companies of all sizes increase their efficiencies and productivity. Additionally, allowing for decreased reliance on humans for production. This would help ensure that they can continue production even amidst a catastrophic incident, like a pandemic.

For SMBs especially, these efficiencies from Industry 4.0 technologies can also level the playing field against more prominent manufacturers that previously had the capabilities to hire more employees and roll out more factory lines. Businesses using automation can increase their capacity and improve productivity from a smaller number of employees.

In particular, the component of Industry 4.0 related to big data applies to SMBs. Big data can help manufacturers with fault prediction and find a correlation between different data points for maintenance. It can also help SMBs manage the supply chain to optimize price to customers or necessary production based on various market data points. These are just a few examples of what is possible with Big Data and Industry 4.0.

While there are many clear benefits from Industry 4.0 technologies, some unknowns may lead to new areas of risk. Increasingly relying on new technology could put businesses at risk if that technology fails due to mechanical error. Additionally, with cyberattacks increasingly targeting Internet of Things devices and other smart systems, there is a clear threat that these systems could be disrupted.

As the pandemic slowly winds to a close, manufacturers may find themselves in this “new normal” of Industry 4.0. It is worth evaluating if these technologies can help maximize success in this new era.