The Internet of Things
Faced-paced markets, new globally operating market players, customer-specific products and complex production processes demand increasingly flexible and responsive production systems and employees. At the same time, productivity and quality standards are supposed to remain as high as ever.
The promise of a solution lies in the latest technological advancements, such as low-cost automation, and in the use of mobile devices and social media tools in management and manufacturing. Production has entered an exciting age, and change will be inevitable.
The coalescence of IT and manufacturing technology
Following mechanisation, industrialisation and automation, a fourth paradigm shift is about to occur in the still young 21st century: the networking of intelligent production technology through embedded controls. Equipment, resources, warehouse systems, logistics etc. communicate with each other in real-time via sensors and networks and are about to revolutionise manufacturing processes.
A number of different “Industry 4.0” research projects are aimed at kick-starting intelligent, networked production system innovations that will carry increasingly efficient, fast-paced and flexible workflows into enterprises. This development calls for modifications and/or optimisations of every manufacturer’s value chain, which in turn presupposes the standardisation and modularisation of numerous individual process steps.
Smart and flexible
Already, industrial manufacturing is constantly facing challenges: New products are launched to market in ever shorter intervals. Customers increasingly create products based on their exact specifications. More and more goods have to be produced – as efficiently and ecologically as possible, of course - while resources are getting scarcer and scarcer.
In order to meet those demands, researchers and industry players are turning to flexible and intelligent automation: Their goal is for machines, workpieces, means of transport and semi-finished goods to exchange information independently and interact with each other as well as with human beings. That’s how cyber-physical systems (CPS) are created, linking real objects (physical) and the virtual world (cyber).
Even today, plant operators equip their machinery with sensors and radio modules generating data that’s continuously analysed. They help save energy, for example, or issue warnings when component maintenance cycles are overdue, thus ensuring the exchange of parts before overload conditions or damages occur.
The value chain controls itself
What’s more, going forward every workpiece will have its own “memory” where customer information, the requested configuration and the destination are stored, among other items. Workpieces can be unambiguously identified and located. They “know” their own required processing steps, their history and their current state. And they are able to communicate with machines and coordinate which manufacturing processes are carried out and when.
In this way, a “self-organising” manufacturing system emerges, controlled by humans but without the need to intervene constantly.
Thanks to microprocessors, “intelligent products” are able to plan the flow of their own production, allowing them to respond spontaneously to bottlenecks. That’s how the trend away from standardisation and toward differentiation is executed and, importantly, how increasing cost and time pressures can be managed.
Major benefits follow: In case of disruptions, intelligent workpieces, machinery and transport systems “re-think” whether a subsequent manufacturing step can be carried out earlier, for example, or whether a different welding robot might take over the tasks of another one that has failed.
At this stage of the industrial paradigm shift, mechanical engineering and IT are merging into a single unit. No longer are decisions on manufacturing processes, production paths and resource management handled by human beings. The machines themselves determine the best way forward.
Take the car of the future, for example, which won’t be built statically at a conveyer belt anymore. Instead, the machines themselves will recognise bottlenecks and idle times, which lets them optimally utilise the capacity of the entire manufacturing plant.
German SME’s great hope: profitable production of smaller batch sizes
Here is where the automation specialists, mechanical engineers and plant engineers among Germany’s small- and medium-sized enterprises see the opportunity to secure their technology lead over the competition. They are promising major productivity increases to their manufacturing customers – gains of up to 30% are believed to be possible, depending on the factory and industry.
This “new” industry is supposed to help Germany and Europe, in particular, as they try to secure their status as business locations. The reason: While Asia holds the lead in mass production, Europe’s future depends on individual-item and small-scale production. That’s precisely what the flexible Industry 4.0 concepts aims to facilitate: Production lines will be designed more flexibly and adjusted in a way that enables profitable manufacturing of small-batch runs and individual products.
As a result, information technology, telecommunications and manufacturing will coalesce in the factory of tomorrow. The term “Industry 4.0” signals historical aspirations in this context, as this “Fourth Industrial Revolution” could also imply a return to one-of-a-kind goods after decades of mass production.
But there are still hurdles to clear: How can IT security be guaranteed? Which technical standards will prevail? What qualifications are necessary for employees?
“Project of the Future - Industry 4.0” in Germany
The German manufacturing sector appears to be geared up for the change. Not only is Germany one of the pre-eminent production-technology and mechanical-engineering locations, it’s also a leader in mechatronic systems. Late last year, the German Industry-Science Research Alliance presented its recommendations for the implementation of the “Project of the Future – Industry 4.0” to the German government. The aim is to bolster Germany’s lead as a high-quality production location and a provider of the most up-to-date production technology.
All the experts agree that competitive manufacturing – especially in the high-wage country Germany – must leverage these new possibilities in smart ways. The starting position is a good one; Germany’s core manufacturing sector is a global leader and pioneer, and not just in the area of embedded systems. The task now is to increase this innovative lead further and turn it into a real competitive advantage.
Throughout this process, human labour will continue to be centrally important – maybe even more so than ever before – in order to ensure flexibility and productivity and to make decisions. In any case, successful manufacturing will continue to depend on qualified and motivated employees.