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Industry 4.0: beyond digitalisation and towards greater circularity

David Stewart from HSSMI tells us about the future of remanufacturing and industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 is regarded by many as the promise of a fourth industrial revolution. Given how radical the first 3 revolutions have been in shaping our existence (the first being steam; the second, mass manufacture; and third, automation), the fourth instalment has a lot to live up to.

So, what do we know about it?

  • It’s etymological foundations stem from Germany where it was first coined as ‘Industrie 4.0’ as part of a governmental strategy for promoting greater levels of computerisation within the manufacturing industry.
  • That it encompasses a wide spectrum of digital technologies, platforms and information systems that connect: the product, people, plant, business and supply chain together, to create intelligent and proactive manufacturing systems that create value for organisations.
  • And it is regularly touted as the future of manufacturing

But are we doing the term an injustice by focusing predominantly on the digital aspects of what constitutes as the fourth industrial revolution? What about changing production and consumption approaches? New business models? The move towards a low carbon future?

The Circular Economy revolution

As leaders in the field, we have a responsibility to ensure that the Fourth Industrial revolution encapsulates everything that is befitting of the title. We would therefore be remiss to ignore the incorporation of another industrial revolution title contender that is disrupting the established production and consumption model, and focused on remediating the global waste problem generated by the first 3 industrial revolutions…

That is, ‘The Circular Economy’ and is defined as:

“an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.” – WRAP (2017)

What is HSSMI doing in this area?

At HSSMI, we are focused on bringing these 2 paradigm shifting title contenders together across our innovation projects. We are specifically interested in how new digital technologies can be used beyond manufacturing facilities, and towards supporting entire value chains, spanning from raw material extraction, part manufacture, product use and recovery. As such, we are working on a number of projects with industrial and academic partners that are focused on deploying digital technologies to support businesses to overcome the inherent uncertainty around predicting the timing, quantity and quality of used products coming back to a facility for recovery, and therefore help them to inform and optimise recovery and redistribution operations. Examples of work in this area includes:

  • Circular 4.0 project – together with Cranfield University, Cisco, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Centre for Remanufacturing and Reuse and Riversimple, we are developing solutions around the integration of sensors and IT infrastructure to capture, condition, analyse and visualise relevant data around li-ion battery condition, asset location, maintenance history and usage patterns to facilitate the operation of a circular economy business model. This system will then be used to remotely monitor the health of assets and trigger when they should be collected and transported for recovery before catastrophic failure takes place. It will also help locate where assets are out in the field and support the service company to arrange collection and transportation.


  • AutoReman project – Working with the University of Birmingham, Caterpillar, the MTC and with support from BMW, our consortium is exploring how robots and cobots (collaborative robots) can be harnessed to support the disassembly of products during the Remanufacturing process. Disassembly is considered to be one of the dirtiest, and most laborious operations within the remanufacturing process. The emphasis of this project is focused on developing solutions that remove manual operators from the dangers associated with disassembly, and towards upskilling them to operate and manage the robots to conduct the heavy lifting and disassembly tasks instead. As part of the project, a robotic pilot line is being built at the University of Birmingham, with doctoral researchers developing new vision systems, robotic control systems and hardware to facilitate the disassembly of a variety of products.

What are we planning for the future?

HSSMI is growing, and with it, so are our projects and our ability to support manufacturing organisations across the UK.  We now have 3 offices located in London, Birmingham and Glasgow and are approaching a cumulative headcount of 70 highly skilled employees across the business. The application of digital technologies and IT systems beyond manufacturing facilities, and across holistic value chains to support the realisation of sustainable production and consumption models is an important area of development for us.

In addition to the projects highlighted above, we are continuing to work in this area to develop new projects and services, such as:

  • Development of a ‘Virtual teardown’ service, whereby physical products are modelled and brought into an immersive 3D virtual environment for remote teams to collaboratively and virtually disassemble and explore together. This will include looking at product design characteristics that facilitate/hinder recovery, the review of potential design failure modes, and identification of components for recovery based on their value and criticality.
  • Applying Discrete events and agent based simulations to model Reverse Supply chains to predict when products will reach the end of their life, and in what quantity and when they will be returned. The outputs will then be used to optimise recovery operations and inform future value generation capacity.
  • Integrating condition monitoring based sensors on assets out in the field to predict failure and generate historical data profiles that can be used to inform machine learning algorithms to create more advanced and automated control
  • Leveraging Blockchain technology to securely track the provenance, history, health, and location of products over multiple lifetimes to permit greater levels of transparency of where products have come from and where they have been

We will be sharing this work at the upcoming SIR annual showcase, hosted at the Technology and Innovation Centre in Glasgow on the 16th May 2018.

Looking ahead, we are interested in engaging with companies across the UK, of different shapes, sizes and industries, to support them on their journey’s through the next industrial revolution. If you are interested in working with us, please get in contact at