Industry 4.0 has been hailed as the fourth industrial revolution, in the course of which physical and virtual worlds connect. This means change lies ahead for all manufacturing companies - including light metal foundries.
As head of research and development at StrikoWestofen, Theodoor van der Hoeven (39) is driving digitisation from the equipment manufacturer perspective. In this interview, he shares his assessment of the significance of Industry 4.0 for the foundry industry.
Editor: Mr. van der Hoeven, what do digital transformation and Industry 4.0 mean to you?
Van der Hoeven: Digital transformation is a trend we are seeing throughout society. It includes things like smart homes, smart cities, smart government, etc. Industry 4.0 could be described as “smart industry”. This instantly shows the difference between the two: Industry 4.0 is the industrial version of digital transformation.
Which main processes or business segments are involved in this transformation?
It is hard to generalise here. For some niche players, embracing Industry 4.0 might not be needed at all, but for those operating in a highly competitive environment, it can be a lifesaver. Industry 4.0 can be implemented in a highly flexible way, which means it can be used for anything from adjustments to a single process through to a complete transformation of the whole business. How it is implemented will strongly depend on your own personal vision and the adoption pressure you experience in your market segment.
New business models also offer opportunities and should certainly be considered, but they will not necessarily be a requirement for future competitiveness. Especially in the foundry industry, where foundries are paid for parts delivered, I can imagine that completely new business models may not be necessary. For foundry suppliers, however, the situation could be quite different.
From your point of view, what are the five main success factors for mastering digitisation and keeping pace?
Having a vision and ideas is one; secondly, digitisation has to be a focus of management as something of strategic importance; thirdly, there’s the breaking open of established workflows to transform the way we do things; the fourth factor is your workforce and partners; and finally we need independent, supplier-agnostic standards.
How is the foundry industry doing in terms of digitisation and Industry 4.0?
Industry 4.0 is only just starting to arrive in the foundry industry. Basic technologies like machine-to-machine (M2M) communication or remote service over VPN have been in use for some time already. Now customer enquiries about these technologies are starting to increase. To fully unlock the potential of Industry 4.0, there is still a lot to be done both on the supplier and the customer side. Equipment manufacturers like ourselves have to develop the right technologies and build up the necessary expertise.
On the customer side, the expected value of Industry 4.0 has to be weighed against current security practice. Here, I expect a gradual adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies within the foundry industry, starting with localised solutions and expanding towards cloud applications and a strong connectivity between foundries and suppliers.
What are the potential risks or downsides of this transformation?
There are a number of aspects to be aware of. First of all, it is important to consider and analyse the return on investment (ROI). In a digital world, anything seems possible. But without a clear ROI new technologies remain gimmicks. There needs to be a business case for doing it.
Secondly, there’s security. As soon as machinery is connected to the outside world, it’s exposed to greater risks. There are many ways to handle security risks, but most still go hand in hand with restricted usability. To complicate things further, new security risks will keep on appearing, for which a suitable software update system will need to be in place. This does not commonly exist for machine control systems.
Thirdly, the idea of Industry 4.0 includes co-operation within an industrial network of companies. In networks of this type, the definition of ownership becomes fuzzy. Who owns data stored in a cloud? Who has which rights to use that data? These issues cause companies to be hesitant to use certain technologies, which in turn diminishes their very potential.
Fourthly, with all these technological opportunities emerging, there is a real risk of overload – and of losing the thread. The more machines start to communicate, the more data will be used for analysis. It will be key to understand where decisions come from, which data has led to which decision and which layer has the highest priority in terms of decision-making.
Do you think the industry can learn from digital pioneers like Google, Amazon and Uber? Do you think there will be new market entrants to the foundry industry in future – maybe even from other sectors?
When we think of competitors to foundries, the first thing that springs to mind is additive manufacturing. This is a very interesting technology with many potential applications. Additive manufacturing is an alternative manufacturing technology, and we should keep an eye on it. Nevertheless, a lot still remains to be done to improve processing times and costs per part in order to be a real competitor for mass-produced castings.
Another type of competitor could come from the digital data itself. With the adoption of Industry 4.0, more data will be generated and shared. As Google has shown, data can be used to generate revenue in many ways. Ultimately, this could lead to traditional suppliers being demoted to mere hardware suppliers, with new IT-centric competitors delivering full factory control systems. While I’m convinced that the design of good control systems requires in-depth process expertise, we should not discount this scenario, but rather rethink our market approach.
If you had to describe the foundry of the future using four terms – what would they be?
Fully automatic, self-optimising, safe and clean.
Mr. Van der Hoeven, thank you very much for this conversation!
StrikoWestofen is a global manufacturer of thermal processing technology for the light metal casting industry and provides energy-efficient solutions for die-casting, gravity casting, sand casting and low-pressure casting.
Over 60 years of experience are the foundation for an extensive expertise and industrial knowledge, what allows StrikoWestofen to understand the needs and manufacturing processes of their customers so well. StrikoWestofen are thus able to optimally integrate their systems into the respective production processes.