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Research & Development
Technology Press and Innovation Communications

Dr. Ulrich Eberl
Herr Dr. Ulrich Eberl
  • Wittelsbacherplatz 2
  • 80333 Munich
  • Germany
Dr. Ulrich Eberl
Herr Florian Martini
  • Wittelsbacherplatz 2
  • 80333 Munich
  • Germany
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From the computer to the production line, new technologies are shrinking the time between virtual planning and manufacturing.

Advanced simulation makes it possible to test production process variations, cost development, and materials utilization in advance.

Self-Organizing Factories

As information generated in the virtual world flows into real manufacturing processes, completely new production environments will emerge. In smart factories, communities of machines will organize themselves, supply chains will automatically coordinate with one another, and unfinished products will send the data needed for their processing to the machines that will turn them into merchandise. Siemens will play a key role in these developments.

Advanced simulation makes it possible to test production process variations, cost development, and materials utilization in advance.

Europe and the U.S. plan to significantly increase their industrial value creation. The German media are treating the next stage of industrial manufacturing as a sensation, describing it as a paradigm shift toward smart factories, and even proclaiming the advent of a fourth industrial revolution. The first industrial revolution was triggered by the invention of the steam engine and the mechanization of manual work in the 18th century. The second revolution involved the implementation of mass production techniques in the early 20th century, and the third was ushered in during the past few decades by electronic systems and computer technologies for automating manufacturing processes. So are we in fact on the verge of a fourth revolution – Industry 4.0? Peter Herweck, Head of Corporate Strategy at Siemens, takes a more sober view. “We’re talking about a time period of 20 years or so,” says Herweck. “The result will appear to be revolutionary from today’s point of view, but ultimately it will involve a large number of development steps.”

Nevertheless, experts agree that future production facilities will be much smarter than today’s factories. This intelligence will be made possible by the use of miniaturized processors, storage units, sensors, and transmitters that will be embedded in nearly all conceivable types of machines, unfinished products, and materials, as well as smart tools and new software for structuring data flows. All of these innovations will enable products and machines to communicate with one another and exchange commands. In other words, the factories of the future will optimize and control their manufacturing processes largely by themselves. However, experts also agree that it will take a very long time to get to that point.

Still, that doesn’t make the trend any less significant. The German federal government has set aside approximately €200 million to help industry associations, research institutes, and companies develop an implementation strategy. The U.S. government also understands how important it is to develop innovative manufacturing strategies. It therefore plans to provide up to $1 billion in funding for the establishment of a national network of research institutes and businesses. Public authorities are responsible for making ubiquitous broadband networks available, and industry needs to put data standardization and transmission protocol systems into place in a timely manner.

“Achieving Industry 4.0 will require us to eliminate a large number of discontinuities in terms of media and data transmission,” says Marion Horstmann, Head of Strategy at Siemens’ Industry Sector. Horstmann also represents the Group in the Research Union, an organization of scientists and business and industry executives that advises the German government on issues related to its high-tech strategy. The union coined the term “Industry 4.0.” This term is hardly used anywhere outside of Germany. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that other industrialized nations share the same goal of making production operations cheaper and as flexible as possible, with ever more rapid innovation cycles.

Germany wants to spearhead this trend, and politicians and business leaders say that the conditions are now ideal for German companies to become leading suppliers of cyber-physical systems (CPS) – one of the terms used internationally to describe Industry 4.0 concepts generated by software, sensors, processors, and communication technologies. Germany’s National Academy of Science and Engineering (aca-tech) believes that such new manufacturing processes will lead to a 30 percent increase in industrial productivity. As the academy points out, CPS will revolutionize not only production but also mobility and healthcare.

“Siemens will play a key role in this process, because it’s the world’s leading supplier of automation technology and industrial software systems,” says Herweck. The structures required for that are already in place. “For years, Siemens has been expanding all of its activities related to vertical IT systems,” Horstmann points out that behind every Siemens acquisition of a software firm over the last few years is a strategy for combining and further developing all the expertise needed for Industry 4.0.

Experts like to describe production in an Industry 4.0 system as a marketplace in which machines offer their services and exchange information with products in real time. The German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) is demonstrating how such a system can work in practice in a smart factory in Kaiserslautern, Germany, which was built in cooperation with 20 industrial and research partners, including Siemens. This pilot facility uses soap bottles to show how products and manufacturing machines can communicate with one another. Empty soap bottles have radio frequency identification (RFID) tags attached to them, and these tags inform machines whether the bottles should be given a black or a white cap. In other words, a product that is in the process of being manufactured carries a digital product memory with it from the very beginning and can communicate with its environment via radio signals. The product thus becomes a cyber-physical system that enables the real world and the virtual world to merge.

Flexibility: Just a Mouse Click Away. The fact that certain elements of the smart factory already exist in reality is demonstrated by a Siemens electronics factory in Amberg, Germany, which has received several awards for the major advances it has achieved in the field of digitization. The facility’s planning team is using state-of-the-art Siemens PLM software in to ensure efficient production of the plant’s standard program of roughly 1,000 items. A few mouse clicks is all it takes for planners to draw up different manufacturing routes for new products, calculate and compare them on the basis of parameters such as throughput and cost, and then choose the most efficient one. “The Amberg factory is a good illustration of where we’re heading,” says Horstmann. Digital planning still has to be transferred into real production “by hand” in Amberg, as the two processes are currently sequential. However, in the future they will increasingly overlap, and they will ultimately be concurrent – in Amberg and in every other highly automated factory. When that happens, engineers who plan a new product, such as a new switchgear, will use special software to simultaneously design its manufacturing process, including all associated mechanical, electronic, and automation systems.

Just as a USB port can be used today to connect different types of devices to a PC, so too will field devices, machines, and other equipment one day be linked in an Industry 4.0 production system, without any need for further parameterization or programming. However, the devices and machines will need to interact perfectly. Siemens’ Totally Integrated Automation (TIA) portal already makes it possible to utilize recurring data seta to plan, test, and implement automation processes auf. “Automation has long since moved beyond the simple controlling of production processes. It’s now also about rapidly adjusting machinery and plants to new products,” says Dr. Thomas Hahn, who manages all of the activities associated with Industry 4.0 at Siemens Corporate Technology (CT).

Overcoming Data Discontinuity. The production environment described here will gradually become a reality. Consider the following questions regarding the soap bottle pilot facility: How does a machine know how many bottles need a white cap and how many require a black one? How does it know whether enough caps are available in the plant, or when they will be delivered? Are there enough people in the warehouse to take deliveries? Today, all of this information is contained in different systems. For example, an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system is responsible for managing materials logistics, personnel planning, and cost calculations, while a manufacturing execution system (MES) controls production operations. The problem is that the various formats, operating systems, and programming languages used in these different systems prevent the smooth and complete transfer of data from one system to another – precisely what’s necessary to enable the merger of the virtual and the physical worlds.

”The first thing we need to do now is to determine which data is relevant to production,” says Jürgen Back, a CT production optimization specialist. The fact that the volume of industrial data grows every day won’t make this task any easier. That’s where CT researchers come in. “We’re now planning different types of cooperative projects with our research partners at universities and institutes,” Hahn reports.

The specific objectives of these projects are currently being defined. “Everyone remembers when telephones were only used to make calls,” says Hahn. “Now mobile phones send and receive photographs and videos, manage appointments, and carry apps that help us every day. In the same manner, production facilities in the future will exchange not only monitoring and control data but also completely different types of product and process content. We’re now studying exactly what type of content this should be.” Data security will be another major research issue, because if an entire product can be manufactured with one data set, companies will need to protect themselves even more effectively against industrial espionage and product piracy.

In any case, it’s already clear that “those who don’t follow the trend will be left behind,” according to Dr. Armin Haupt, who manages the CT unit for Production Planning and Optimization in Erlangen, Germany. “Companies that want to be part of the digital future will need to have continuously useful data at their disposal,” he explains. This is the first milestone that must be reached. Siemens consultants are currently analyzing the data used at various Siemens production facilities in order to draw up roadmaps – development chains that will lead to a standardized data landscape.

Many of the technologies needed for Industry 4.0 already exist. These include the Internet, Profinet as a standardized data connection for industrial facilities, simulation software, and the TIA portal for rapid engineering. Experts are therefore certain that the transition to Industry 4.0 is unstoppable. “Industry 4.0 isn’t an idea without any basis in reality,” says Herweck. Unlike similar concepts that were propagated in the past – for example, computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM) – the Industry 4.0 trend is developing through the merger and refinement of existing technologies.

There’s also another big difference, according to Herweck. “This issue has already brought together major industrial companies, academic research institutes, and governments in pursuit of a common goal,” he says.

Katrin Nikolaus