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Cyber-Physical Systems and their application in modern manufacturing

Robot hand in a laboratory

Fotolia / Zoe

Written by Lieve Van Woensel with Brian Kelly,

CPS are technical systems where networked computers and robots interact with the physical world. Found in a wide range of services and applications, CPS are quickly becoming a part of modern manufacturing processes, making it necessary to examine the impacts they will have in this area.

The Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) Panel recently published a study on the ‘Ethics of Cyber-Physical Systems’ (CPS). The study examines seven key areas where Cyber-Physical Systems will have a significant impact, and makes use of information included in a technical briefing paper written by Professor Fred van Houten (University of Twente, The Netherlands) and Chiel Scholten, MSc (Technopolis Group, The Netherlands).

What changes are we going to see in manufacturing?

Use of CPS in manufacturing could result in massive changes to the way the manufacturing process is currently conducted, leading to a fourth industrial revolution, ‘Industry 4.0’. CPS could help manufacturing through the continuous miniaturisation of sensors and actuators, driven through current developments and advances in nanotechnology. As smart manufacturing requires massive amounts of real-time data, gathered through sensors, in order to function, the miniaturisation of sensors will help pave the way for Industry 4.0. The development of smaller sensors, combined with the new internet protocol, IPv6 developed in 2012, allows the sensors to become part of the ‘internet of things’, where everything is interconnected online – a defining feature of Industry 4.0. These changes will lead to radical new manufacturing business models, with data becoming a competitive asset, much as it is for internet firms like Google or Facebook.

What will this do to society?

CPS can contribute to the individualisation of modern society, as advances in CPS could allow for intelligent machines with machine-learning abilities. This, coupled with advances in additive manufacturing, will increasingly allow consumers to customise their products, as shown in this video. As manufacturing becomes easier and more cost-effective, we may face a rise in consumerism. Will these manufacturing developments lead to a further erosion of meaning in the consumption of goods? Will we face higher levels of consumerism than we experience today? These questions will need to be addressed as CPS continue to advance in manufacturing.

How will jobs be affected?

Changes in the field of manufacturing could lead to a major change in the jobs currently associated with manufacturing. Physical labour – and strength – may become less and less important and instead greater emphasis will be placed on an individual’s ability to utilise digital skills. In fact, by 2020, 90% of all jobs will require at least some digital skills. Less physically demanding work could give rise to healthier workers, longer life expectancy, and could increase the age range in which workers will be able to contribute in the manufacturing sector.

What next?

CPS are here to stay and there are many expected benefits from the development of these technologies in relation to manufacturing. Nevertheless, these systems still pose challenges and ethical questions, which cannot be ignored. Overall, the application of CPS in manufacturing promises major benefits to the economy and society. The development of these systems will, however, require changes in legislation to account for the risks that these systems pose, to ensure citizens remain safe and secure in a world shared with CPS.

For more information about CPS check out this STOA video.

About Scientific Foresight (STOA)

The Scientific Foresight Unit (STOA) carries out interdisciplinary research and provides strategic advice in the field of science and technology options assessment and scientific foresight. It undertakes in-depth studies and organises workshops on developments in these fields, and it hosts the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH), a platform to promote networking, training and knowledge sharing between the EP, the scientific community and the media. All this work is carried out under the guidance of the Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA), composed of 27 MEPs nominated by 11 EP Committees. The STOA Panel forms an integral part of the structure of the EP.


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