Faster, better, more customized – new customer demands continue to put pressure on traditional industries. Is the Internet of Things the solution?
Industrial companies are currently facing extensive change. Series production needs to become more customized and single-item production more efficient. What might sound simple at first actually requires a radical new approach in the factory. Companies need to transform their static processes into flexible added-value networks. To do that, they need to practice digitization not only in their accounting, customer service and sales departments but also in the factory and warehouse. The goal is clear: production processes that organize and optimize themselves.
Reality by 2025 at the latest
This is not a new idea. In 2011, the German government declared the fourth industrial revolution, also known as Industry 4.0, as one of its pioneering projects. People have been debating about the topic ever since. However, developments in smart production are moving slowly. Industry 4.0 is still taking baby steps, particularly in the factory. According to a study published by VDMA (German engineering association), more than half of the industry is still at the very beginning of the transformation process. Even though two-thirds of companies are collecting machine and process data, only three out of ten are using that data for automatic production. When will the smart factory become a reality? According to the Association for Electrical, Electronic & Information Technologies (VDE) it will be 2025 at the latest. That is why, instead of talking about a revolution, it makes sense to talk about industrial evolution.
The forerunners of Industry 4.0 can be seen at many companies with the Internet of Things playing a key role. Maintenance services use the Internet of Things to check machine and system status remotely as well as to fix configuration-related problems. Maintenance costs are being reduced by up to 30 percent as a result.
Fixing problems right away
Once they are connected, machines are able to constantly transmit their production data. That makes it possible to automatically organize and analyze the data from a single wrenching process. Corrective measures can be initiated immediately if that data deviates from standards.
However, companies aren't just connecting machines and systems but, more and more, people as well. Many car manufacturers are testing the use of wearable devices in production. The goal is to support employees in their work. Take Volkswagen's use of 3D data glasses in order-picking. Similar to the smartphone game Pokémon GO, the glasses expand the wearer's perception of reality. All of the information employees need for their work, such as product location or part number, is displayed on the "screen" of their glasses. Touch or voice command leave employees' hands free for other activities. The camera of the glasses also scans barcodes and shows the correct barcodes and withdrawals in green. Wrongly taken items are colorized in red.
Machines need to speak the same language
All in all such solutions already work flawlessly for themselves. The problem lies in the digitized interplay between the various connected production elements. Depending on manufacturer, age and region, machines and systems speak completely different languages. An internationally recognized standard – basically Esperanto for machines – has yet to be developed. For Industry 4.0 to work it is important that no machine network remains isolated. Instead, all process chains, from production and warehousing to logistics and sales, need to be connected. The further processing of machine and sensor data in systems for customer relationship management, production process management and resource planning is the starting point to making company processes more transparent, managing them more intelligently and thereby continuing to improve them. For example, if a production system shares its information with the warehouse management system, that system can then identify the perfect warehousing location and commission a forklift to complete the process.
Instead of waiting for a universal standard, companies already have the option of relying on platform solutions. These translate device-specific data into a data model that applies to all devices. They provide all required technology as scalable solutions: modules and gateways to connect the machines, network connections, cloud servers, data analysis tools and an online user portal. These platforms also ensure seamless communication with the current IT environment.
Retirement for everyone?
The more connected, automated and autonomous production becomes, the more important the question of what this means in terms of jobs becomes. The World Economic Forum, for example, anticipates that the fourth industrial revolution could cost more than five million jobs by 2020. Many economists are saying, however, that the advantages and opportunities provided by Industry 4.0 will more than compensate for the loss of jobs. Either way, empty factories will remain nothing more than an illusion, at least in the decades to come. Instead, technology such as exoskeletons is being used to assist people doing heavy physical work. And at the same time, the number of service-related and scientific jobs is on the rise while administrative and production jobs are on the decline. For that reason those who want to benefit from Industry 4.0 would be wise to also invest in continuing education for their employees.