If you want to understand Industry 4.0, the Internet of Thing (IoT), and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), plus what they mean for the future of maintenance management, it’s important to look back at how we got here. Putting aside any complicated philosophies about the true nature of history, a safe working theory is that although history doesn’t repeat itself, it does tend to rhyme. So, by looking at the past, we have an idea of what to expect from the future. If you understand the first three industrial revolutions, you can better prepare your maintenance department for version 4.0. 

But before we look back at the past or launch ourselves into the future, let’s cover some common definitions. 

What’s the definition of an industrial revolution? 

An industrial revolution is when technological advancements create socioeconomic changes that lead to widespread cultural shifts. 

For example, you start with the invention of the steam engine. From there, you go to the rise of the factory and the creation of new urban centers. Before you know it, the countryside is emptying as everyone moves to the city for work. 

Often, these technological advancements were the result of being able to harness a new source of power. For example, moving from people and animal power to steam. From steam to electricity. And then to nuclear power. 

What was life like before the First Industrial Revolution? 

It depends how far back you go. If it’s to the agrarian societies just before the first industrial revolution, the answer is that life was harder, more dangerous, and less predictable. 

There are a bunch of reasons why, but likely one of the most important is that transportation was so difficult. Remember, this was back when calculating “horsepower” meant counting how many horses you’d tied to your wagon. Moving people and products took more time and effort, and so for many, it only ever made sense to stay close to home. Grow your own food, make your own stuff, and when you trade, it’s generally local. Although there were clear divisions of labor and each field had its own specialists, most people were general jack of all trades. 

But if you go back a lot farther, all the way to pre-agrarian hunter-gatherer societies, the answer might change. There’s a theory that farming was our greatest collective mistake. Instead of a balanced diet of all the different things we could find, we switched to just the one or two crops we could manage to reliably grow, making us a lot less healthy. 

The First Industrial Revolution and the rise of steam, factories, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 

Nowadays, you can charge a lot more for a cup of coffee if you claim it’s “artisanal,” “handcrafted,” or “small batch.” [link: https://www.coffeedetective.com/hand-crafted-coffee.html]. But prior to the first industrial revolution, this sort of marketing wouldn’t have helped much. Everything was basically done by hand, and if you wanted to scale your operations, the only way to do it was to increase the size of your workforce. 

Around about 1760, British companies started embracing new production technologies, moving to a mechanized factory system powered by steam. The textiles industry was the first to adopt modern manufacturing, and it quickly became and remained the dominant industry of the first industrial revolution in terms of employment, output, and capital. 

Other affected industries include: 

  • Chemicals 
  • Mining 
  • Iron forging 
  • Glass making 
  • Machine tooling 

Over time, steam power was used for trains and then boats, cutting travel times and costs, making it possible to deliver goods to more locations and at prices more people could afford. 

Along with all this new technology came the fear of machines one day taking over, of scientific knowledge and its technological applications getting out of control. When Mary Shelley wrote about Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, she wasn’t talking about demons or ghosts. A scientist brought that monster to life, in a lab, by perverting the powers of nature. 

The Second Industrial Revolution and cheap steel, plentiful electricity, and lots of cars 

Around 1870, there was another series of industrial jumps. And although many of them were based on earlier discoveries and technologies, the Second Industrial Revolution was when everything started to go global. With the Bessemer process, it was now possible to mass produce steel more cheaply, supporting the large-scale development of water supplies, sewage systems, and the expansion of rail lines. 

Industry moved from steam to electricity, allowing for new production processes and factory designs. Factory work, although still grueling, became safer because workers were no longer surrounded by the heat, pollution, and fire hazard of gas lights. In 1879, the first electric streetlights were installed, and in 1881, there was the first public building lit by electricity exclusively. 

Perhaps the two most famous developments of the Second Industrial Revolution are Henry Ford’s Model T and the assembly lines he developed to mass produce it. Fueled by a dream to sell a car the average worker could afford, Ford developed machine tools and purpose-built machines that he then lined up to cut production costs by streamlining production. 

And it worked. In 1910, a Model T cost $780, but by 1916, the price had fallen to $360. It had fallen again to $290 by 1924. 

The Third Industrial Revolution and computers, robot assembly, and the Internet 

There were so many changes in the Third Industrial Revolution that they came up with some extra names for it, including the Digital Revolution and the Information Age. 

The technology behind many of the changes is digitalization, where information is converted to a format a computer can read. From there, you get digital communications and the ability to easily store, transmit, and read data. You can also quickly duplicate data without introducing any errors. 

Music was just one of the industries where companies “digitized” existing analogue products. Cameras went from film to digital sensors, TVs got digital signals, and the Telex became a fax machine. 

In the 1970s, companies started to automate production lines, helping them increase speed and decrease inconsistency. A robot arm can move faster and does everything the exact same way every time. 

And just like back with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, there were a lot of people worried about how this new technology was going to affect society. There are a ton of sci-fi books and movies predicting a utopian future free of manual labor. And there are just as many warning of robots and AI stealing all the jobs, using humans as batteries, or sending killing machines back through time looking for Sarah Conner. 

The Fourth Industrial Revolution and nuclear power, the IoT, and the IIot

It’s tempting to call this one the Third Revolution on Steroids. But it’s more than just further increases in efficiency. The machines are not just doing the work faster. 

They’re now talking to one another as they work. And a lot of those conversations are about the future. 

Assets and equipment now have sensors collecting real-time streams of data on everything from temperature to pressure, vibration to humidity. The data is shared across different assets and equipment, creating communication networks. Using sophisticated algorithms and machine learning, you can search for small patterns inside the data that help you predict upcoming failures.   

Why you should embrace Industry 4.0 

Because the sooner you get ahead of the competition, the further behind you can leave them in your dust. 

Remember, from 1760 to 1830, the first Industrial Revolution mostly stayed where it started because the British were careful about restricting the export of machinery and manufacturing techniques. They even kept a firm grip on their skilled workers. They didn’t want to give up what they knew were critical competitive advantages. 

On some level, you might argue that it wasn’t the technology alone; it was some combination of timing and culture and luck that put Britain so far ahead. But it’s not an easy argument to make. As soon as the technology reached Luxemburg, that was the exact location of the next industrial revolution. 

Next steps 

Ready to embrace the next revolution and get ahead of the competition? 

ManagerPlus is here to help you get the solution that works best for you, including answering your questions about maintenance management software or helping you book a live software demo. 


If you want to understand Industry 4.0 and your potential place in it, you first need to know about the previous three industrial revolutions. Because although history doesn’t reuse the exact same plot points, it does tend to have some recurring themes. Industrial revolutions happen when scientific discoveries make possible new technologies that have widespread effects on industry and society.

In the First Industrial Revolution, new steam engines allowed for the start of mass production and the rise of the factory. People started to move off farms and into cities. In the Second Industrial Revolution, companies made the move to electricity, making factories safer (although still inhumanely dangerous by today’s standards) and more efficient.

The Model T and its assembly lines are the most famous examples from this era. By the Third Industrial Revolution, with the introduction of digitalization, it became much easier to store and share information. Robots entered the factories.

We are now in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with a focus is networked, “thinking” machines that monitor themselves so they can predict and avoid future failures. Like with all previous industrial revolutions, organizations need to embrace the new technology and shifts in the workforce that come with them if they want to remain competitive. 

About the author

Jonathan Davis

Jonathan has been covering asset management, maintenance software, and SaaS solutions since joining Hippo CMMS. Prior to that, he wrote for textbooks and video games.
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