Smart control is a characteristic of Industry 4.0
Networked machines control themselves autonomously and intelligently. Each machine knows how many parts there are left in the warehouse, and if stock is running low, the system automatically sends a request to the supplier to send more. Some machines can plan production processes autonomously and at lightning speed. For example, if a buyer decides at the last minute that his car should have a sun roof, the factory automatically plans another route through production for this vehicle.
The move from central control to decentralised, autonomous optimisation is the next step towards the smart factory. Robots and machines are no longer mere automatons that repeat one work step a million times. The networking of all production processes means that they decide autonomously which component takes which route through production. As a result, logistics processes within companies, but also across supply chains, are becoming leaner.
The internet is the key to digitalisation
Each component must be digitally captured to enable it to communicate with others. Sensors in machinery and digital technologies such as RFID chips are paving the way for Industry 4.0. The Internet of Things (IoT) is what we call the fitting of sensors to all items and the creation of digital information paths for processes. Communication across boundaries, be it between person and machine, production equipment and inventory, or company and customer, takes place via the internet. This type of communication requires a fast and powerful mobile phone network, recently launched as 5G.
This next-generation wireless network standard is of particular interest to industry. There are also other ways of transmitting and collating data wirelessly, such as Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN), one of which is currently being tested at Bremen steel works.
A digital twin simplifies processes
All processes in a company – whether factories or logistics chains – can be digitally reproduced from this data and turned into digital twins. These virtual copies of real-world processes have a number of benefits. They allow you not only to see all currently running processes at a glance but also to virtually make changes to production or the transport chain and then run a simulation. As a result, optimisations can be checked more quickly, faults and errors in planning can be identified more cost-effectively, and time and money can be saved.
Digitalisation means connectivity beyond boundaries
Connectivity, or digitalisation, is not limited to the shop floor, i.e. the factory hall or the shipping warehouse. If manufacturing is digitalised, then the processes behind it need to be too. And not just within your own company, but also at your suppliers, customers and end users. Such end-to-end connectivity can achieve significant efficiency gains.
Collecting and processing data is part of this. Companies with data-driven business models such as Google and Facebook are among the world’s most valuable businesses, as they have found a way of monetising huge volumes of data. Industrial companies have access to a huge wealth of data too, and evaluating it is an important process within Industry 4.0. Big data and artificial intelligence (AI) (german) are key terms in this respect. But rather than the user data of customers or suppliers, it is more about production and process data. The potential of artificial intelligence in this area, in particular, is hugely underestimated. AI is able to collect and evaluate data in a way that previously would not have seemed even remotely possible. To give an example: as a paper clip manufacturer, would you be able to check every single clip for defects using a photo? AI can. As a freight company, could you track every route of every truck and optimise it in real time? AI can do that too.
Maintaining and evaluating data also makes new business models possible in the service sector. The ability to collect data even long after a machine has been delivered to the customer, for example, makes it possible to sell servicing contracts with real-time monitoring and optimisation. This can help to bind the customer even more closely to the manufacturer.
Robot-based automation, web-enabled machines, AI, big data – many of these have been around for some time. What makes Industry 4.0 different is that information is available from across the company, and processing it is more efficient. Increasingly, stand-alone solutions are giving way to connected systems.
Industry 4.0 is paving the way for efficient manufacturing in the future
But what is the point of it all? What is driving the digital transformation? The simple answer is: we are. Consumers are increasingly demanding customised, rather than off-the-shelf, products. Even one-offs are no longer that unusual. Vehicle configurations are a good example. It is already possible to put together the car of your dreams, with model, colour, engine type, equipment level and optional extras just some of the choices available. This results in millions of potential configurations, some of which might be the only one of its kind in the world.
A product tailored to the customer’s wishes requires tailored manufacturing. But made by hand? Not at all. Intelligent manufacturing is the answer. Producing bespoke items en masse is only possible if the factory is capable of manufacturing one-offs, i.e. it can decide for each component which route to take and which piece of machinery will work on it. This puts the focus on the customer more than ever before. Customer-focused solutions are at the heart of the new production environment, and companies must adapt to this. Not only at the production level, but above all in product design, marketing and sales.
The factory of the future can react rapidly and flexibly, allowing it to increase efficiency and manufacture according to actual demand. No human would be capable of changing plans as quickly and process so much information from so many different sources while still making the best possible decision. Machines, some equipped with artificial intelligence, can take over this task and open up completely new possibilities that we would never have seen before.
One of these possibilities is 3D printing. This may still be in its infancy, but the progress it has made is impressive. In fact, the first 3D-printed parts to be fitted in airplanes will be taking to the skies soon. This technology is essentially the apex of bespoke production – every 3D-printed part can look different and meet a different specification. Not everything will be made by 3D printer, of course, as bespoke parts will remain more expensive than mass-produced items in the long run. But they are a viable alternative for special requirements and individual requests.
Much will depend on how well you know your customers and how well you can cater to their needs. Customer focus is one of the key drivers behind the digitalisation of processes. Companies must ask themselves how they can use new technologies to better serve their customers’ requirements – or even to find out about them in the first place.