Industry 4.0: Crafting the Future With AI, Robotics, and Automation

Stanley Black & Decker partners with Techstars to help startups bring on advanced manufacturing

Ryan E. Day

May 13, 2021

Just like its predecessors, this fourth industrial revolution (dubbed Industry 4.0 in 2011) is all about increasing productivity. Unlike the first three revolutions, today’s pivotal technologies hold forth the possibility to also improve efficiency, quality, and human satisfaction.

Steam power, electrical power, and basic computer tech were the prominent themes that brought us out of a world where everything was literally handmade. These technologies were all, more or less, multipliers of manual labor. Basically, it was total throughput that was enhanced. The modern assembly line may be the final contribution to these first revolutions and represents the pinnacle of the “more output without more input” modality.

But manufacturing is now a global competition, and it is fierce. Gaining market share—and often just getting a foot in the door of commerce—requires more than increased throughput. We need better ways of building things. So, manufacturing and process engineers across the globe are doing what humans are famous for: tinkering.

The modalities being tinkered with—artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, automation, and IIoT—comprise the backbone of this fourth industrial revolution—aka advanced manufacturing.

stanley black&decker's manufactory
Stanley Black & Decker’s Manufactory 4.0 Center in Hartford, Connecticut

Emerging technology is making it possible to synthesize classic manufacturing and business principles from lean and kaizen like never before. Doing so is quickly becoming a differentiator for established organizations, and a powerful enabler for startups.

The purpose of Industry 4.0 is firmly rooted in improving key areas such as:
Muda—Waste reduction
Mura—Reducing unevenness in processes or production
Muri—Overburdening equipment or people
• Risk management

“At its core, AI in manufacturing is about better utilizing data to make workflows more efficient,” explains Laila Partridge, managing director of the STANLEY + Techstars Accelerator. “It drives its own set of processes, beginning with the sensors and machines that generate data, to the databases that store that information, and the algorithms that seek to glean insights from the data. Automation closes the loop by translating those insights into actions that improve the efficiency of the machines and, ultimately, workflows. Robots are a piece of the puzzle by making repetitive tasks more efficient and thus, improving overall productivity. Combining AI and automation in manufacturing is not simply about doing things faster and with higher quality; it is about fundamentally reinventing manufacturing processes to be more flexible (think: ability to customize everything and anything), more efficiently (think: personalized item built and shipped in 72 hours), and more sustainable (think: using less energy and other natural resources). We are just scratching the surface on those possibilities.”

It’s no surprise that entrepreneurs like Rishabh Agarwal, CEO of Peer Robotics, are tuned into the possibilities of advanced manufacturing.

“The core objective of Industry 4.0 is to optimize business operations and increase productivity,” says Agarwal. “We believe AI can [analyze vast manufacturing operations data] and perform predictions. It will change the way industries operate.”

Accelerating Industry 4.0

Manufacturing business startups are especially challenged by financial constraints when it comes to investing in technological solutions for advanced manufacturing. There is, however, a silver lining in their upstart status: Larger organizations are willing to partner with them to accelerate their growth into viable product producers.

Stanley Black & Decker and Techstars are two organizations that put tremendous resources into play for accelerating advanced manufacturing or Industry 4.0. One way they do this is with aptly named accelerators, close cousins to incubators.

Stanley Black & Decker's innovation ecosystem
Stanley Black & Decker’s innovation ecosystem.

While incubators focus on startups—the creation of new companies—accelerators focus on scale-ups, rapidly advancing the development of existing companies. Both may offer shared office space, shared administrative support, and, importantly, training and mentoring expertise in either technology maturation or business models.

Incubators are often focused on formulating a team, creating the technology, developing a minimum viable product (MVP), and defining the customer and business model at the start of an enterprise. Accelerators, on the other hand, which can be agnostic to the life stage of a company, tend to focus on maturing and scaling up a startup and often operate in a time-bounded (typically three to six months) cohort in contrast to the rolling admission and longer-term nature of an incubator.

In 2018 Stanley and Techstars hosted an additive manufacturing accelerator at Stanley's Manufactory 4.0 Center in Hartford, Connecticut.

In this case, let’s take a look at this year’s STANLEY+Techstars Class of 2021.

Stanley Black & Decker has roughly 140 factories and distribution centers around the world and is committed to manufacturing excellence, in particular creating and delivering Industry 4.0 solutions at scale.

Mark Mayberry
Mark Maybury, chief technology officer at Stanley Black & Decker

“McKinsey reports that Industry 4.0 can unlock double digit efficiency gains,” says Mark Maybury, chief technology officer at Stanley Black & Decker. “Value creation potential on Industry 4.0 is $3.7 trillion by 2025, but impediments include integration challenges, inability to scale solutions, and advanced skills gaps.”

This, of course, is where the accelerator program comes in, and Mark Fiala, director at ProductionAR, is eager to take advantage of all it offers.

“I have two goals with this program,” says Fiala. “First is to launch our augmented-reality logistics product with the guidance and connections of the Techstars go-to-market experience. Second, to meet ‘authentic users’ of our base technology to incubate new products within the large and innovative world of Stanley.”

The 2021 cohort is focused on three key areas:
Companies in the intelligent factory as a service category that aim to create scalable, agile, intelligent, and service-oriented solutions to factory automation challenges and opportunities.
Companies in the digitization category that focus on digitization across the life cycle (design, supply chain, manufacturing, distribution) of products and services. This includes platforms for sensing (IIoT), analytics, and overall data and knowledge management in smart factories.
Companies in the synergy, safety, and sustainability category that focus on factory automation solutions which advance human-machine collaboration, enhance safety, and optimize manufacturing, including promoting circularity.

“After successfully accelerating additive manufacturing and sustainable packaging startups in prior years, this year’s class is focused on solutions for artificial intelligence in advanced manufacturing,” explains Partridge. “We’ll work with two robotics companies, four software companies, and four companies developing solutions by way of digital and hardware components.”

The startups participating in the 2021 cohort originate from a number of locations across the states: Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Washington, and across the globe, from Canada, to Germany, to India.

“The ‘acceleration’ experienced by startups during programming refers to founder achievements: Startups are said to achieve in 13 weeks within the accelerator what they would normally have accomplished in two years.”
—Laila Partridge, managing director, STANLEY + Techstars Accelerator

“We had an open, global call for participants, followed by a global set of recruiting meetings with potential participants,” explains Partridge. “Finally, we had a rigorous selection process by technology and business experts at Stanley Black & Decker, Techstars, and the community.”

Typical steps in an accelerator program include development of the team, refinement of the technology, expansion of customers, and refinement of the business model. All steps a growing organization must go through, to be sure, but the boost of an accelerator is significant.

“During the second portion of the program, the large number of short mentor meetings are replaced with a smaller number of substantive mentoring sessions and a variety of workshops and other group programming designed to help founders refine their product offering and grow sales,” says Partridge. “The ‘acceleration’ experienced by startups during programming refers to founder achievements: Startups are said to achieve in 13 weeks within the accelerator what they would normally have accomplished in two years.”

Such rapid development would be impossible without the involvement of well-established business partners.

“We’re really excited to scale our manufacturing approach, and the timing couldn’t be better,” says Elias Stahl, co-founder and CEO of Hiloslab. “Our approach is disruptive, transforming how products are designed so that we can make exactly what you want when you need it. And working with an established global manufacturer like Stanley Black & Decker helps us develop solutions at scale.”

During the process, founders can deepen their education on business topics, be mentored by experts, and sometimes pivot to higher growth or more profitable opportunities. They often graduate at a “pitch day” in which the companies reveal their new products and/or services to the community, including potential investors.

“This year’s class kicked off January 25th and culminated with a demo day and investor days in late April,” says Partridge. “We were eager to utilize a virtual format for this year’s program to both keep our founders and accelerator community safe and to broaden our mentor pool to include individuals from across the globe. We believe this extended mentor pool more than made up for losing some of the social elements of running our program in person.”

Artificial intelligence (AI)

When I asked how big of an impact is AI having on Industry 4.0, Mark Fiala’s reply was succinct and to the point. “I believe that AI will enable the next industrial revolution.”

Stanley Black & Decker’s commitment to AI is evidenced by the 10-year Roadmap for AI-Enabled Manufacturing they developed in league with the Association for the Advancement of AI. This road map articulates the technological steps and roadblocks to consider to achieve their vision of synergistic human-machine operations.

“AI has multiple important contributions to advanced manufacturing, including helping to optimize and create agile supply chains and processes,” says Partridge. “AI can also be used to develop anticipatory analytics to forecast futures, prescribe actions to shape the future, and advance synergistic human-robot interactions that take humans out of the dull, dirty, dangerous jobs and create new opportunities from combined human and machine learning.”

It is not an overstatement to say that AI is the key that unlocks the potential of the internet of things (IoT), big data, cloud computing, additive manufacturing, augmented reality, autonomous robots, modeling, and simulation.

“AI will impact manufacturing in two ways,” says Stahl. “The first is optimizing existing infrastructure through increased capture and analytics of operational data, currently the no-brainer road the industry is taking. The second is a much more transformative approach that links design, development, and manufacturing together in a single digital workflow. This allows for some really exciting capabilities, like redeveloping products in real time through user testing. What if our products continued to evolve while being made?”


The accelerator participants seem to agree that robotics will continue to have a major impact on advanced manufacturing.

“At Peer Robotics, we believe the future lies in collaboration between humans and robots, and not fixed automation,” says Agarwal. “Over the years, collaborative manipulators, or cobots, have created a big impact on how robotics is adopted in manufacturing plants. With continuous efforts on making robots more human-compatible, industries will keep on utilizing robotics for a wide range of value-add use cases.”

Elias Stahl agrees. “In some places robotics will replace human drivers, but in most places they will augment them,” he predicts.We see the value of additive as celebrating the human operator, increasing their efficiency, and infusing the product with their own craft, not obscuring them. It’s counterintuitive, but some things should be made by human hands, and 3D printing can make that viable at scale.”


“Allowing humans to focus on cognitive tasks and automating repetitive and cumbersome processes will enable manufacturing industries to focus on innovation and constant development,” says Agarwal. “Automation and upskilling together will allow every individual of the manufacturing industry to focus on identifying and solving challenges that the industries are facing at the moment or might face a few years down the line."

Agarwal’s sentiment seems to be a constant theme weaving through the Industry 4.0 conversation.

“Admittedly I see AI and robotics as the underlying drivers of digital and physical automation, respectively,” says Stahl. “But at a larger level, automation is most impactful when it frees human craft, creativity, or care. This is where the impacts will be most apparent in the industry—allowing for great precision and craft in the end product, new design directions, and a more strategic-minded team. Every operator will be a manager, just not of other people.”

“I see a series of practical—perhaps not glossy and exciting to the general public—but solid scientific and technological advances by automation, deployed by forward-looking firms.”
—Mark Fiala, director of ProductionAR

About The Author

Ryan E. Day’s picture

Ryan E. Day

Ryan E. Day is Quality Digest’s project manager and senior editor for solution-based reporting, which brings together those seeking business improvement solutions and solution providers. Day has spent the last decade researching and interviewing top business leaders and continuous improvement experts at companies like Sakor, Ford, Merchandize Liquidators, Olympus, 3D Systems, Hexagon, Intertek, InfinityQS, Johnson Controls, FARO, and Eckel Industries. Most of his reporting is done with the help of his 20-lb tabby cat at his side.