Universities and Industry 4.0: are you ready?

The new cyber-physical landscape can help universities thrive – but only if they address their digital transformation plans. Professor Kamal Bechkoum, head of computing and engineering at the University of Gloucestershire considers the challenges ahead

The impact of Covid-19, tuition fee challenges and a reduction in European funding means that UK universities are having to work harder than ever before to recruit students, who in turn go on to form the backbone of the world’s skills supply.

As we enter an era that demands universities embrace innovation and, in particular, digital solutions that enable them to succeed in this new industrial landscape – the central question is ‘how will higher education respond to Industry 4.0?’

Cyber-physical systems are a core concept that was originally advocated by the German government for building smart factories to bring about the fourth industrial revolution, or ‘Industry 4.0.’ Industry 4.0’s interconnected, online nature brings with it a host of operational challenges and cyber-resilience threats. To keep up with it, universities should prioritise adaptability while investigating their positions in a wider industrial context.

The technological developments involved enable HEIs of all sizes to provide a more personalised experience for staff and students alike. Developments including automated admin to track attendance and help academics keep pace with teaching programmes; Artificial Intelligence (AI) to carry out repetitive tasks and free-up valuable human resources; and data analysis that follows students from enrolment to graduation and beyond – all can be harnessed for forecasting, extracting insights and even powering discussions using virtual agents.


What is Industry 4.0?

Industry 4.0 is the latest industrial revolution and follows the first, second and third industrial revolutions.

First industrial revolution: mechanisation through water and steam power

Second industrial revolution: electrification, enabling mass production and assembly lines using electricity

Third industrial revolution: adoption of computers and automation

Fourth industrial revolution: Digitisation, smart and autonomous systems

Industry 4.0 will see manufacturing become more efficient and productive as cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things and the Internet of Systems work together to create and share information.

How will Industry 4.0 affect higher education?

The impact of Industry 4.0 will be felt way beyond manufacturing, however. The jobs market, the environment, consumer behaviour and education will all be affected by it.

In response to Industry 4.0, universities must evolve and update their digital estate to remain connected and consistent, while preparing students for this new world.


Universities and Industry 4.0: a growing need for security

Defined security programs and comprehensive planning that considers security and safety are rarely in place at the beginning of a transition, while employees with security responsibilities tend to suffer from having undefined roles.

This is largely because cybersecurity has a reputation for being something less than a university-governance-level topic. The debate around technological transformation more often focuses on increased functionality and income, with cybersecurity falling into a poor second place – unless, of course, an attack occurs.

A typical example is the ongoing migration of universities towards cloud-based computing solutions, which generally offer the benefits of cost-effective accessibility.

However, during such a change security should be prioritised as the same level cost-savings are. This is particularly true for higher education institutions (HEIs) choosing public cloud services, which can potentially risk exposing crucial data.

The number of online-interconnected devices making up the ‘Internet of Things (IoT)’ is currently estimated to be somewhere between 26 and 75 billion. This generates over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data at a rapid pace of change that makes attempted cyber-attacks an inevitability.

Finding the right skills

A lack of sufficient information and security expertise is a major barrier to adopting Industry 4.0, and the challenge for HE leaders is to foster and align IT security awareness across their organisation.

In addition, those involved in the deployment of new solutions often understand IT, or Operational Technology (OT) hardware and software, but rarely both.

Security specialists working in these areas should have the ability to monitor, prevent and detect anomalies, and understand the full range of Industry 4.0 solutions.

The ‘smart manufacturing’ that comes with Industry 4.0 demands new skill levels, including capabilities in network security, embedded systems and information and operational technology security awareness. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified specialists who encompass all of the above.

Managing interoperability

With the introduction of Industry 4.0, integrating devices platforms and frameworks to existing systems raises the issue of ‘interoperability.’

Securing interconnectivity between diverse devices can be even more problematic when old technology is long past its support date. This makes the implementation of secure solutions that enable a smooth integration, such as gateways that transparently communicate with different networks, a vital part of any new protocols.

Universities and Industry 4.0: a strategy for the future

The weakest link in the chain can have detrimental effects for an entire university and its affiliates.

To address this, always:

  • Use frameworks that promote a common security language and feature protocols for Industry 4.0 components
  • Identify specific security levels between cooperating partners and companies across a supply chain that cover the essential three cybersecurity components: People, processes and technologies
  • Conduct rigorous, transparent, and replicable testing of all new tools and technologies before they are introduced

These points, of course, represent only an introduction to the key issues surrounding Industry 4.0.

If the UK is to excel in the current uncertain environment being driven by the Covid-19 pandemic, there is an urgent need for organisations to address their digital transformation plans.

Ideally, actions should be steered by a strategy which addresses key cybersecurity components and ensures that risk is appropriately managed at every stage of the process.

Find out more about how the University of Gloucestershire’s Business and Partnership capabilities could help your organisation.

Professor Kamal Bechkoum is head of computing and engineering at the University of Gloucestershire.

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