INDUSTRIE 4.0.: Intelligent factories that run themselves, mass production of customized goods, products that talk to the machines that make them: In the coming decade, the Internet will reach the factory floor, launching a fourth industrial revolution.
Industry Robot "Space Justin"
One day in the not-too-distant future, you will be able to, if so inclined, order a brand-new pink-and-green striped car with your spouse’s name sprayed on the hood and pick it up days later at no extra cost. Your favorite colleague will be a robot capable of manifold specialized tasks, including brewing your coffee just the way you like it.
But the benefits are much broader than personal gain: entire factories will operate with minimum wastage and downtime as machines foresee and avert supply shortages and technical problems. Real factories will be mirrored by virtual ones in which engineers can simulate all production steps and pinpoint alternatives that would save time and resources.
The German government predicts that by 2025, production lines teeming with workers or machines all performing the same tasks to churn out uniform products will be obsolete. Instead, robots using an array of different tools will be able to forge, drill, polish, and lacquer components into a variety of designs, steered by bar codes or radio frequency identification chips incorporated into the materials they're working on.
It would be easy to assume that robots will replace the factory workforce entirely. This will not necessarily be the case, however; it is more likely that skill and knowledge requirements will change. “I’m convinced that our employment levels will remain constant,” says Dr. Roman Dumitrescu, managing director of strategy and R&D at it’s OWL Clustermanagement GmbH. “However, to succeed in this new environment, companies must be proactive in developing their production technology, understanding future job requirements, and training employees.”
The wireless automation needed to create these new working environments, so-called smart factories, is driven by cyber-physical systems that will make machines and parts intelligent enough to tell each other what to do. A global race is on to be at the forefront of this industrial revolution and develop smart factories. Furthermore, companies that embrace the new technology stand to achieve large productivity gains – as much as 30 percent according to an estimate by Germany’s National Academy of Science and Engineering, acatech.
In Germany, the revolution goes by the name “INDUSTRIE 4.0,” a term coined by engineers advising the German government. It signifies the concept developed by the SmartFactoryKL research platform set up in 2005 by companies and automation experts. The government enshrined the factory of the future as one of its top economic priorities in the coalition agreement following the September 2013 election, and has pledged EUR 430 million to a wealth of research projects underway across the country to promote the digital economy by 2018.
Germany has good chances of becoming the global leading supplier and market for INDUSTRIE 4.0, the BDI Federation of German Industries said in a recent study. “Industry has a 23 percent share of GDP in Germany, far above the international average. Additionally, German companies are world leaders in the automation and flexibilization of production processes.” Furthermore, as Dumitrescu points out, “Germany will gain a clear competitive advantage as it can offer higher production quality and productivity. This development could entice manufacturers to move facilities back to Germany from the United States or Asia.”
A nationwide introduction of INDUSTRIE 4.0 technology will create hundreds of billions of euros of new business and add 1.7 percentage points to annual German growth, the BDI predicts. Plant and equipment manufacturing, carmaking, electrical technology, and the chemical industries are expected to benefit most. A whole new “smart service” sector will sprout as new ways are found to market the wealth of data generated by machines and consumer products.
The car component of the future will keep gathering data about its condition and send an alert when it’s coming close to the end of its life. It will even notify the manufacturer that it needs to be replaced. Its message will cite the vehicle model and the address to which the part needs to be sent. The factory machine will automatically produce the required part, and by the time it has arrived at the dealership, the owner will of course have been invited to bring the car in for servicing.
Product cycles, currently measured in years, will shrink dramatically as the working methods of Internet and software companies are applied to manufacturing. “In the factory of tomorrow, production cells will replace the assembly line principle,” says Dr. Harald Schrimpf, CEO of software company PSI AG. “The truly revolutionary aspect is that many processes and paradigms from the Internet and software industry will be applied to physical production. Industrial production will be steered increasingly by IT. Software gets updated every few weeks, which is far faster than product cycles for physical goods. In the factory of tomorrow it will be possible to retool machines far more quickly with the help of IT and assemble new product variations alongside existing designs.”
INDUSTRIE 4.0 won’t take the form of a big bang. It’s a gradual process that will take ten to fifteen years, say industry leaders. Experts predict that the coming two to three years will see ever more companies launch small-scale prototype plants employing principles from the factory of the future and use technology that have been exhibited at last year’s Hannover Messe trade fair.
Currently, research ventures are sprouting across the country. In Bavaria, infoteam Software AG has turned INDUSTRIE 4.0 into reality in cooperation with Jung, a company that has been making electrical equipment for a century. They developed a Web application that enables customers to order tailor-made light-switch designs via Jung’s website. Are you looking for a single switch featuring a purple rhinoceros for a child’s bedroom, or do you need 150 customized switches for a hotel? Not a problem anymore.
infoteam Software is a member of Automation Valley Nordbayern, an association which was founded in 2004 by the chambers of commerce in Nuremberg and other cities in northern Bavaria. It has 250 members, ranging from global players such as Siemens to highly specialized small and medium-sized businesses as well as research institutions. They cooperate on development, joint business conferences, and developing foreign markets, particularly in China, India, South Korea, and Japan.
In another project, Adidas, the sports equipment manufacturer, is leading a government-sponsored three-year project to develop an automated plant capable of greater product customization. Adidas said the plant could be efficient enough to prompt the relocation of production facilities back to Germany from Asia.
The revolution still faces some major hurdles, such as developing an international language for machine-to--machine (M2M) communication. So-called M2M technology is about to grow exponentially. By 2020, an estimated 50 billion machines will be connected to each other, exchanging data and commands.
M2M isn’t confined to gleaming high-tech factories. It’s increasingly being used in farming. Modern tractors and combine harvesters gather and share data such as soil moisture and nutrient levels in a cloud-based data system, a kind of agricultural Internet, to get the most out of the land.
Tractor cabins already resemble cockpits in which farmers switch to autopilot because the machines themselves can plough, fertilize, and harvest far more efficiently if guided by GPS than if steered by humans. Software is available that monitors the grain tank of a combine harvester and summons a tractor-trailer before it gets full, thereby eliminating waiting times.
German agricultural equipment manufacturer Claas is working to optimize this teamwork between farming machinery. It’s part of the “it’s OWL” research cluster, an acronym for Intelligente Technische Systeme OstWestfalenLippe, a network of 174 industrial firms, universities, and research bodies based in the northwest German region that are running a fascinating array of pioneering INDUSTRIE 4.0 projects.
it’s OWL has amassed a total of EUR 100 million in funding, including EUR 40 million in government support, to finance 46 projects across many industries. These projects include the development of an intelligent industrial laundry that will conserve energy, water, and detergent through greater automation. A robot, aided by image processing software, handles the soiled laundry. The project, which runs until July 2015, plans to revolutionize the sector, reducing costs and opening up new markets, particularly in regions chronically short of water.
Security is a further major challenge and will be an important part of the smart service sector. In the brave new world of interconnected machines, it’s conceivable that cyber hackers could bring entire countries to a standstill. Systems must be devised to shield manufacturing from such attacks and, of course, from piracy. “Security is a very sensitive issue when it comes to implementing new solutions,” says Dumitrescu. “We have to factor security into the development of components as well as into the networking and integration of solutions – and that across the entire life cycle of a product.”
Last October, the German government launched the Smart Service Welt program which aims to help the Mittelstand in dealing with precisely these issues. Up to EUR 50 million is being made available to encourage SMEs in particular to develop Internet-based services for industry. Unity AG, also part of the it’s OWL cluster, is working on a system to identify threats and enable firms to incorporate security at the product development stage.
INDUSTRIE 4.0 will burst onto the global stage in April when it will feature as the central theme of the Hannover Messe, the world’s leading industrial trade fair. The exhibition will be a sight to behold, displaying digitally steered production equipment, 3-D printing technology, and ultramodern industrial robots equipped with sensors so sophisticated that human workers will be able to work side by side with them, without any kind of segregation or minimum safety distance.
I know of many companies abroad that have said they’ll be coming to it, that they don’t want to miss the show,” says Professor Detlef Zühlke, head of the Innovative Factory Systems department at the German Research Center for Artificial -Intelligence and founder of the SmartFactoryKL research center. “Hannover is so important because we’re at the high point of the hype cycle 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. And at this year’s show you’ll see companies offering such products for the first time,” he says. “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. And most of these innovations will have been made in Germany.”
Plattform INDUSTRIE 4.0
Plattform Industrie 4.0 was set up by the umbrella organizations BITKOM (Federal Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media), VDMA (German Engineering Association), and ZVEI (German Electrical and Electronic Manufacturers’ Association) to promote and implement the German government’s high-tech strategy INDUSTRIE 4.0, which aims to secure and expand German industry in the digital age.
The overall goal is to enable Germany to become the leading supplier of cyber-physical production systems by 2020. To this end, the platform formulates roadmaps at half-yearly intervals which outline key areas of research and set milestones that assist the government in providing targeted support for development projects.
Launched at the April 2013 Hannover Messe industry trade show, the platform also brings together the expertise of industry groups representing 6,900 companies such as Siemens, ABB, and Bosch, as well as leading technical universities and research institutions such as the Fraunhofer Institute. Its website gives further information on taking part in the tendering process for government-assisted research projects.
The forum is in the process of being broadened to include more stakeholders such as trade unions, and will be renamed Dialogplattform 4.0 later this year. The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy will take on the role as moderator in this dialogue. The rearranged forum held its first meeting at the 2015 Hannover Messe industry trade fair.
Photo: DLR (M); ABB (M)