Over the course of the last decade, few global industries have experienced a demand surge to rival that of data centers. And, one of its main catalysts has been Industry 4.0.

Data-driven technologies are increasingly defining the way that the world operates, with global manufacturing and supply chains being amongst the most heavily (and permanently) impacted spheres.

So, how is the emerging Industry 4.0 shaping the global data center industry?

Data centers and the social media era

Although the data center industry was still sizable in the 2000s, at this point it was being propelled, predominantly, by government spending and financial houses.

According to Alastair Waite, data center market development at CommScope, the recent proliferation of data centers – and indeed, the entire global data center market – can largely be attributed to the rise of hyperscale and cloud companies.

These organizations transcended national borders, which proved a critical differentiator from the primary data center users that came prior.

When data centers were primarily being used by banks and governments, although there was a huge amount of capital available to spend, it was typically limited to within their borders, their immediate company domain, or centered around the primary international hubs, like New York, London, and Hong Kong.

“It was when the hyperscale and cloud companies really started to push their footprint globally, into Europe and into Asia, that things really started to explode. That’s when you started seeing data centers getting close to ‘a location near you’,” Waite explains.

Laying the groundwork for Industry 4.0

Although the industry has been successful for many years, it was during this period that growth flourished.

From 2010 to 2015, large hyperscale companies adjusted their focus towards global expansion. “But they realized that that was really stretching the industry, their own people and supply chains,” Waite explains.

“So, they brought in new concepts. For example, Meta brought in the Open Compute Project, which pulled back the curtain and showed everybody what was going on inside the data center.”

It was during this time that providers started releasing plans detailing how to build servers and switches. This quickly enabled global data center supply chains and even encouraged competition.

Two of the key impacts of this were, firstly, that it enabled the industry at large to learn from its leaders and sharpen its approach. Secondly, the level of connectivity available increased significantly. In turn, data centers made more and more services available, and people enjoyed the benefits of these, meaning it became a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” cites Waite.

Meanwhile, the requirements of social media meant that data was being pushed closer to the Edge and brought to more global locations.

As data centers increasingly moved away from the central hubs into more diverse locations, lower latency communication between end users and devices could be achieved, and far more applications became possible.

Now, building on developments that were first fueled by social media, the data center boom is being propelled even further, by the emergence of Industry 4.0.

Defining Industry 4.0 and AI’s role within it

The world has undergone four industrial revolutions. The predecessors of Industry 4.0 have been characterized by traits like water-powered factories and machines, electrification, and digital technologies.

For Industry 4.0, its defining trademark is the increasing dependence of industry on robots.

Almost all manufacturing tasks plan to incorporate robots and connectivity solutions, including IoT, 6G, AI and VR, to operate as efficiently as possible.

Now in the early dawn of Industry 4.0, we are already seeing a considerable blurring of the boundaries between the physical and digital worlds.

New software and automation are changing activities that would have previously been carried out by humans, most of these being heavy lifting (like on automotive assembly lines, for example) or repetitive manual tasks (like in food manufacturing processes). As a result, these technologies are now completing an increasing proportion of industry’s physical tasks.

But, are we beginning to see Industry 4.0 blur the boundaries between the digital and biological spheres, too?

A key milestone for this boundary-blurring will be when machines go beyond simply taking instructions, to performing critical thinking independently, and applying that knowledge to solve complex problems in real-time.

And although Industry 4.0 has not reached this stage (yet), we’re all aware of how rapidly AI is advancing. ChatGPT’s dominance in the news (from relative obscurity a year ago) is a testament to that.

“Taking automotive manufacturing as an example, the machines will be jam-packed with sensors, which will have to make decisions that, probably, humans would have made previously. And I think AI is the only way to support that development.”

“Industry 4.0 will make it complete, and I think, with this, the physical, digital and biological worlds will come together,” Waite asserts.

What does Industry 4.0 mean for data centers?

Data centers’ role in supporting Industry 4.0 is absolutely critical.

“Having the ability to gather and manipulate data – to come to a sensible decision about what the next activity is going to be – is key. Machine-to-machine communication between servers is just growing unabated,” says Waite.

With the ever-increasing introduction of machines – which will be working 24 hours a day, seven days a week – higher and higher bandwidths will be required, and data centers will prove crucial to supporting this shift.

As a result, data centers are going to have to be built with greater resiliency, higher bandwidth capabilities and, in the majority of cases, on-premise at the user's location.

Then, alongside the new requirements for the data centers themselves, the medium to deliver said information is also going to be imperative.

“You need to have a superfast medium that's going to be low latency – like 5G, private 5G, LTE or optical fiber – which is connecting the data center to the manufacturing areas. That, in combination with data centers, is what's required to really have a world class Industry 4.0 operation,” Waite adds.

Collaboration, transparency, and sustainability

Although the industry still remains comparatively secretive and fiercely competitive, the last 15 years have shifted considerably, in the favor of increased collaboration and transparency.

Consumer calls for sustainability mean data centers are having to share more strategic directions with their industry partners.

Collaboration around sustainability is now a hugely important topic to the industry at large. As a result, not only do data centers need to communicate their efforts better, but they also need to choose partners with the same aspirations, and the ability to support them on that path.

“A lot of operators who are serious about having a global footprint are having to operate in a more collaborative way, and they're having to share more information with their partners,” Waite asserts.

“I think there's an acceptance that you can't do this on your own. You have to bring other people along with you – who have different skill sets, and an ability to think and operate globally – and be open with them.

“At CommScope, we take sustainability extremely seriously, not just at a corporate level. We look at it from a business unit level, and we also look at how our products impact our customers and their architectures. We're trying to design products that will help our customers achieve their sustainability targets.”

And this isn’t a case of greenwashing, CommScope has the action – and the stats – to back up its serious sustainable stance. In 2022 alone, via the sourcing of renewable electricity, the company managed to save 11,375 metric tons of CO2 from entering our atmosphere.

It is this kind of mindful business practice that will be absolutely essential as we progress through Industry 4.0 and beyond.

Today, operators need to not only manage the ever-surging demand that Industry 4.0 is creating, but also strive to consistently improve their sustainability standards, in line with governments’ targets and customers’ expectations.

Again, this only serves to exemplify how invaluable improving collaboration and transparency really is. Not just amongst data center leaders, but also between them, their suppliers, and their partners.

To find out more about CommScope’s sustainability in action, you can check out CommScope’s 2023 sustainability report here.