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There are costs and risks to a program of action, but they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction. 

— John F. Kennedy  

While many of us are familiar with the Industrial Revolution, it may be surprising to hear that several waves of industrial revolutions have been identified since that time. The fourth and latest of these movements builds upon the foundation set by the third “Digital” Revolution.  

Beginning in the late 1950s, the Digital Revolution introduced a swell of new technology. Soon personal computers became a household item, digital record keeping became a staple for businesses and mobile phones became a must-have item for teens across America. But the most important technology to emerge during this time was the internet. This vast network of connected computers has transformed how we live, work and interact with each other, and it’s set to do so again.  

The digital revolution was only the beginning. Integrating smart technology into factories and workplaces will allow connected machines to make decisions autonomously. Three-dimensional printing (3D), artificial intelligence (AI) and robots, among other emerging technologies, are set to impact virtually every industry, including yours. Let’s explore the fourth industrial revolution — how it started and where it’s leading us — to discern how mechanical engineers like yourself can safeguard their future in an increasingly automated world.  

In the Beginning  

The digital revolution began in earnest on April 30, 1993, when the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) made a decision that would alter the course of history: releasing the source code for the world’s first web browser and (for better or worse) placing control of the internet in the hands of the general public. Before this revolution, telecommunications only scaled vertically, and sharing more data meant allocating more resources (CPU or RAM) to a single computer. The internet, on the other hand, scales out rather than up. Now, networks of interconnected computers can connect people across the globe. This is what allowed the internet to spread so rapidly and revolutionize our way of life.  

Disruptive Innovation 

The fourth industrial revolution is in many ways an extension of the digital revolution, but there are three reasons why it’s considered a revolution unlike any other: velocity, scope, and systems impact. While the previous industrial revolutions resulted in unprecedented change, the fourth industrial revolution is disrupting virtually every industry in the world and evolving at an exponential rate. The following technologies are by no means the only innovations to emerge during this time, but they should give you a better idea of the world we are careening toward.   

3D Printing  

Traditionally, manufacturing involves the subtractive process of cutting, drilling or grinding raw materials into desired shapes — like chiseling a sculpture from a block of stone. 3D printing, by contrast, can form objects from layers of melted materials, typically thermoplastics, allowing for rapid prototyping and on-demand production. With 3D printing, entrepreneurs can save on start-up costs, inventory management and wasted materials and remove barriers between them and their markets. 3D printing is largely limited to the automotive, aerospace and medical industries for now, but it’s only a matter of time before it branches out to other industries.  

3D printing would not be the dominant force in manufacturing it is today without mechanical engineer Dr. Joseph Beaman, the first researcher in the field of Solid Freedom Fabrication. In 1986, Dr. Beaman and his then-graduate student Carl Deckard invented selective laser sintering (SLS), one of the first forms of 3D printing. “We knew early on that if we could do it,” said Dr. Beaman, “it would essentially change the way people did manufacturing.” An inventor and mentor, Dr. Beaman is a professor at The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering. 

 Artificial Intelligence 

Alan Turing, creator of the famous Turing test, believed computers to be most useful when they complement, rather than compete against, humans. He may have had a point. Artificial intelligence (AI) is the capability of a machine to mimic the human mind, specifically its ability to problem solve. These machines use algorithms: mathematical instructions that “learn” in response to data. Every time you look at your Facebook feed or Netflix recommendations, you’re seeing machine learning in action. AI has reshaped our society — the rapid automation of blue-collar industries is responsible for up to 70% of changes to U.S. wages over the last four decades — and with the rise of autonomous vehicles and drones, it’s predicted to do so again.  

Advanced Robotics  

Robots have long been confined to specific tasks and industries; however, as evidenced by this rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” performed by Boston Dynamic robots, they’ve come a long way, so much so that collaboration between humans and machines will soon be commonplace. Look no further than the self-service kiosk at your local supermarket to see how ubiquitous automation is becoming. By 2025, robots and humans will spend an equal amount of time working, with tens of millions of jobs around the world eliminated, created and improved. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), these trends will necessitate reskilling half of all employees.  

 For a look at how robots are building a better future, check out the work being done by Ashish Deshpande and his research group at the Rehabilitation and Neuromuscular (ReNeu) Robotics Lab. As part of UT Austin’s Mechanical Engineering Department, the lab develops innovative robotic devices to rehabilitate individuals with severe disabilities. Maestro is the lab’s attempt to build a novel hand-wrist exoskeleton for recovering stroke patients. These trailblazing researchers hope their findings will inform the design of future rehabilitation robots. 

Prepare for What Comes Next  

“The changes are so profound that, from the perspective of human history, there has never been a time of greater promise or potential peril,” said Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the WEF. The fourth industrial revolution promises to eliminate mundane tasks, raise wages and improve quality of life across the globe, but it could fuel inequality and cybersecurity threats in the process. There’s no telling how far-reaching these changes will be, but you can be sure that the prepared will benefit most from this revolution.  

UT Austin offers two 100% online engineering programs ideal for professionals interested in remaining at the forefront of an ever-changing landscape. The executive Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering and the Mechanical Engineering Controls Graduate Certificate program are composed of online and asynchronous courses regularly updated in response to industry trends. As a Texas Engineer, you’ll learn to utilize emerging technologies and engage with rigorous, industry-relevant course content. Upon graduating, you’ll be rewarded with a career-enhancing credential from one of the top-ranked engineering schools in the country.  

The full impact of the fourth industrial revolution remains to be seen, which is even more reason to stay ahead of the curve. Apply to one of our 100% online programs to master mechanical engineering topics and gain a skill set adapted for an ever-changing landscape.  


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