Nanotechnology in Industry 4.0

Nanotechnology in Industry 4.0

Many parts of the world are on the cusp of Industry 4.0, which promises to bring about a greater degree of automation to industrial processes, manufacturing processes and aspects of everyday lives. Industry 4.0 will leverage the so-called Internet of Things (IoT), which brings together data from a vast array of sensor networks into one centralised location. But it is not just the acquisition of data which is important in the IoT, it is the ability for it to be transported over long distances via the internet, then analysed and monitored without the need for human input. This is performed in IoT operations through machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and big data algorithms that spot trends and anomalies using real-time and historical data. Because the IoT is self-sufficient, it can perform many routine tasks and alert a human operative only when there is a problem—or a suspected problem.

Whilst, a lot of the work around Industry 4.0 revolves around advances in software and data algorithms, there is still a place in this soon-to-be automated world for nanotechnology. The first, and maybe the most obvious, is in the sensors themselves. In order for the algorithms and other software processes to effectively analyse data from a range of data entry points, the incoming data into needs to be as free from errors as much as possible. Whilst there is going to always be some errors, minimising the error generated is key. Sensors that employ nanomaterials are known to be much more efficient and sensitive than their non-nanomaterial counterparts. This primarily stems from a higher relative surface area to detect analytes and a more detectable (and measurable) change in the localised properties of the nanomaterial which is converted into the desired output.

Because they are more sensitive, they can pick up smaller changes in a local environment that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Likewise, because the conversion from detection to output is more efficient, there is less chance that the data will be misconstrued. The more accurate the data being fed into the system, the more accurately the algorithms can predict trends and spot anomalies—as sensors that produces inaccurate data will not produce highly correlated trends, meaning that the anomalies are harder to spot.

Still on the topic of sensors, it is areas of manufacturing and chemical processes that can greatly benefit from the implementation of nanomaterial-based sensors and the IoT. Many processes involve harsh environments, which can damage the sensors over time, leading to inaccurate results. These environments often require out-of-line sensors which can be less accurate than those which take a physical measurement. Because many nanomaterials are resistant to harsh chemical environments and are inherently stable, the use of nanomaterials in sensors could provide a way of monitoring harsh chemical processes with a greater degree of accuracy.

Another key area is the Internet of Nano Things (IoNT). We’ll just touch on this briefly, as it is worth a mention, but this will be covered in more detail in a separate article. In essence, the IoNT is a smaller version of the IoT, which uses small and remote sensors to collect data, and this data is then passed through a series of hubs that transmit the data to a centralised location. Given the small size of these IoT systems, they are better suited to environmental monitoring and medical applications that are designed to monitor different parts of a human body simultaneously.

Another area which could materialise in the future is the use of quantum computing to facilitate data transfer over long distances. It is thought that data transmitted by a quantum network will be a lot more secure. Given the amount of data transfer possible with the IoT, the extra level of encryption could provide an extra level of security over classical systems. As for where nanotechnology could have an impact, nanomaterials—especially those of a semiconducting

nature—are being extensively trialled as the physical building blocks of quantum computers and are being used as a way of better controlling the quantum entanglement between quantum bits (qubits). So, should quantum computing materialise in the future, then it is likely that nanomaterials will make up some of the fundamental building blocks.

On the flip side, Industry 4.0 and the IoT could be used in a manufacturing capacity to improve the output of nanomaterials from a production perspective. Because all sensors in these networks are linked, it would also provide a means to monitor the localised atmosphere for the presence of nanomaterials that could be harmful to the workforce. So, Industry 4.0 could provide a means of simultaneously monitoring (and improving) the production of nanomaterials and ensuring that occupational safety needs are being met.