A Revolutionary Birthplace
Interview with Professor Detlef Zühlke, head of the Innovative Factory Systems department at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, founder of the SmartFactoryKL research center, and spiritual father of the INDUSTRIE 4.0 concept.
Detlef Zühlke | © SmartFactoryKL Detlef Zühlke has held the chair in production automation at the Kaiserslautern University of Technology in Germany since 1991. His research has been recognized by the Borchers medal of honor, the medal of honor of the German Society of Engineers and the IFAC outstanding service award.
How long will it take for INDUSTRIE 4.0 to become widely established?
Zühlke: The idea is revolutionary but the implementation will be evolutionary, of course. In the next two to three years, the first INDUSTRIE 4.0 machines will emerge, but they will be prototypes. We’ve had inquiries from carmakers wanting to embrace the technology – though not by converting entire production lines, rather by starting on a small scale to gain experience. Big companies will largely drive the process, as they can afford it. Whereas it will take longer for SMEs to follow suit. In four or five years, we should see a noticeable shift towards-greater and easier customization of mass-produced goods. I envisage wider application of INDUSTRIE 4.0 in ten to fifteen years.
Is Germany leading the way with INDUSTRIE 4.0?
Zühlke: Without a doubt, because we invented it. I launched the Smart-Factory in 2004, and that was the basis for the ideas that gave rise to the buzzword INDUSTRIE 4.0 in 2011. Most of the innovations being shown at the Hannover Messe will come from Germany. We have a technological lead of about three years, but that will disappear quickly if we don’t keep up the pace.
What hurdles still need to be overcome?
Zühlke: A common international standard must be found for machine-to-machine [M2M] communication. Usually with new technologies, you get competing standards initially and then one manages to establish itself. It may well be that the Americans end up setting that standard because they can move faster. They have a few large players such as Intel, AT&T, General Electric, IBM, and Cisco involved, whereas Germany, with its large Mittelstand, is likely to take longer to agree on unified standards, simply because there are more people at the table.
Are there any other hurdles?
Zühlke: Security is the second-biggest issue. INDUSTRIE 4.0 will work only if convincing, satisfactory, and secure solutions can be found. The system has to be shielded from cyber hackers – both private and state-sponsored. In the future, a state won’t need to send tanks if it’s capable of shutting down the entire industrial production of another country. The solutions can’t just be technical; they’ll also have to be political and legal.
Are you confident that Germany will keep its lead?
Zühlke: I think we will, if we manage to maintain the speed of development we’ve achieved in projects like SmartFactory. In the long run, it won’t matter whose standard language for M2M communications is adopted internationally. The key will be how the technology is applied, and Germany is better placed because we’re the production specialists and because substantial government research funding is being made available.
In the future, will there be ghost factories staffed by just a few engineers?
Zühlke: I don’t think there will be an overall decline in the workforce. Humans will remain essential as problem-solvers because this complex new world will bring new types of challenges that can only be mastered with human thought and flexibility. But there will be a shift toward more highly skilled jobs with expertise in mechatronics. People will need to be able to manage and maintain an entire network of integrated machines.
How important will this year’s Hannover Messe be?
Zühlke: It will be a big stage for INDUS-TRIE 4.0. The Hannover Messe is important because we’re at the high point of the hype surrounding INDUSTRIE 4.0, and by the time that hype starts subsiding we need to be offering concrete systems and solutions to keep up the momentum. At this year’s show, you’ll see companies offering such products for the first time. There will be special machine components in the form of plug-and-play systems, similar to the printer driver you install on your home PC. They’ll enable machines to be integrated into networks. Most of these innovations will have been made in Germany.