The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Digital Twin Technology & the Steam Engine


As the Fourth Industrial Revolution unfolds, it’s essential to understand its roots. The industrial revolution, which took place in the latter half of the 18th century, changed the world as we know it. Before it, society in Europe and North America was predominantly rural and agricultural. People made everything by hand; machines needed animals, wind or water to move them.

The industrial revolution transformed European and North American societies into predominantly urban, industrialised economies. And the industrial revolution was driven by one iconic invention: the steam engine. 

Steaming Ahead

The steam engine was the engine that drove the industrial revolution. The technology took off in the late 1700s when Scottish inventor James Watt built his first Watt steam engine.

At this point, the industrial revolution accelerated. With the steam engine, factories could suddenly be built anywhere, not just near sources of power like water. Larger factories needed workers to function, so millions left rural areas to work in factories in towns.

Soon, the steam engine moved beyond factories. The first steam-powered locomotive was produced in 1814. In the 1800s, steam was used to move parts in steam turbines, producing electricity. As a result, electric lights were invented and used to light homes and streets.

The industrial revolution quickly spread across Europe and North America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As a result, the lives of millions of people were changed forever. There was a steady increase in wealth and standard of living for the middle and upper classes, who benefitted immediately. For the working class, the benefits arrived with the formation of labour unions, providing higher wages and better conditions.

A Modern-Day Fourth Industrial Revolution

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a technological revolution

The steam engine and the industrial revolution it unleashed fundamentally altered the world. A transformation of a similar scale is taking place today with the onset of the fourth industrial revolution.

Since the onset of the industrial revolution, we have had the second industrial revolution, where electricity allowed for mass production. Next was the third industrial revolution when information technology and electronics automated production. Now, a fourth industrial revolution is building on the third. This revolution is characterised as a “fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.

The fourth industrial revolution can fundamentally change our society for the better by solving the two central energy challenges – the transition to net-zero and energy security. 

Technology and Net-Zero

If we are to avoid the worst of climate change, we must transition to net-zero emissions by 2050. For this transition to succeed, we must massively increase renewable energy capacity. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the rate at which renewable energy capacity is added must increase from 134 GW a year in 2020 to 630 GW a year in 2030. In offshore wind, for example, 95% of the capacity required to hit the 2050 net-zero target is yet to be built.

World leaders know that the transition to net-zero cannot succeed without fourth industrial revolution technology. At the World Economic Forum’s 2022 annual meeting in Davos, many discussions focused on the crucial role of fourth industrial revolution technology in driving us to net-zero. For example, in one session, Christain Klien, CEO of SAP Software Solutions, noted that:

Technology is make or break to achieve net-zero.

Digital twin technology is an example of technology that can help accelerate the transition to net-zero by creating a robust innovation curve in the offshore wind industry. Predictive digital twins of offshore wind turbines allow for the development of leaner, more efficient, and innovative designs. The digital feedback loop this technology provides allows for improvements to both the design and operations of wind turbines, which in turn lead to lower costs, shorter time frames to design and build wind capacity, and therefore increased renewable energy adoption.

Energy Security

At Davos, Energy Security was a key topic of discussion, especially in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the Energy Outlook, Overcoming the Crisis session, the Executive Director of the IEA, Fatih Birol, made the following point:

We are in the middle of the first global energy crisis. In the 70s, it was the oil crisis. Now we have an oil crisis, a natural gas crisis, a coal crisis, with oil prices skyrocketing. Energy security is a priority for all governments.

Fourth industrial revolution technologies help achieve energy security in two ways. The first is diversifying the energy mix to avoid over-reliance on energy imports and one energy source for energy needs. Digital technology helps diversify the energy mix by bringing down the price of renewable energy and increasing its adoption.

For example, predictive digital twins of offshore wind turbines allow for the development of leaner, more efficient operations. The digital feedback loop then allows for improvements to both the design and operations of wind turbines, leading to lower costs, shorter timeframes to design and build wind capacity, and increased renewable energy adoption.

Fourth industrial revolution technologies also help achieve energy security by maintaining critical assets. While it is imperative to move to net-zero as soon as possible, we will need fossil fuels for a couple of decades while we transition. Therefore, the challenge is to continue using oil and gas without building more infrastructure to lock in emissions for years and kill the clean energy transition.

To help, digital simulations can perform real-time health monitoring of energy assets to reduce risk and critical failures. The software offers high resolution, targeted monitoring to warn of issues before they arise and show how much life remains before replacement or repair is required.

The Fusion of Technologies

The fusion of technologies during the fourth industrial revolution could be as significant now as the steam engine was during the industrial revolution in the 18th century. We are on the cusp of a technological revolution that will completely alter our lives. By solving the challenges of net-zero and energy security, technology can make the world a better, safer and greener world for all.