If you’re reading about Industry 4.0 for the first time, better get up to speed. That label describes the official, coordinated research program established by working groups of the German government in order to implement wider computer network controls for process manufacturing — the mass production of industrial goods. It’s also described as The Smart Factory project, and the research is based on exploitation of cyber technology in manufacturing, and follows closely the concepts laid out in the “Internet of Things” theory: the idea that technology can track, monitor, organize, and make accessible thousands or millions of individual pieces.
The term, Industry 4.0, is meant to imply a “fourth industrial revolution”: the first revolution saw the application of water and steam power for manufacturing; followed by the second, when mass production was driven by electric power; and then the third, the digital revolution, with electronics and information technology optimizing and automating production.
This is not the first time a technical breakthrough was expected to revolutionize the world of manufacturing: Recall that computer-integrated manufacturing, or CIM, was derided by many as a “CIMera.” About a quarter of a century later, Dr. Thomas Bauernhansel, director of the Institute for Industrial Manufacturing and Management (IFF) and the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA) in Stuttgart, Germany, where much of the Industry 4.0 research is being coordinated, offered us more understanding. Whether it will gain widespread acceptance or will remain just a bit of media hype, that’s a question to which as yet there is no definitive answer.
When did you first hear of Industry 4.0, and what did you think of it?
Bauernhansel: It was in 2011, at a meeting of the Fraunhofer Production Matrix. We all started to google terms like cyber-physical systems, and tried to make sense of what could be meant by Industry 4.0. None of the production luminaries at this meeting had more than a vague idea. So the term was not coined by production experts, but it comes from the fields of IT and artificial intelligence. Nonetheless, production technology experts had been working on it for a very long time.
What’s the difference from CIM?
CIM was based on the assumption that we won’t be having people in the factory any more. The concept with CIM is that everything is highly integrated, and centrally controlled from a master computer. Here, humans now had merely an integrative function as planners and “commanders.”
Communication, Not Integration
Industry 4.0 adopts an entirely fresh approach, focusing on communication, not integration. This means we have decentralized autonomous systems that communicate with each other, irrespective of the particular system and manufacturers involved. We say: the human being continues to play a central role in the factory, but a different one. He takes charge of the value creation process.
And, we are opting for data management in real-time. This means there’s no time-lagged data image in some central database. What happens is that data is acquired in real time at the places where it is currently being generated. In the context of control system technology, we’re talking about milliseconds here. In the context of planning and control, perhaps minutes or hours will suffice.
Industry 4.0 stands and falls with cyber-physical systems (CPS), but there are experts who say these are too expensive, not reliable enough and frequently over-dimensioned. What’s your response to that?
My respected colleague Alexander Verl has rightly remarked that ultimately we have to focus on the cost-efficiency of these systems. This critical approach is important, so as in particular to rein in those among the vendors concerned, meaning software firms or also machinery manufacturers, who are sensing business opportunities for themselves here.
Ultimately, the system as a whole has to offer an advantage to the customer who is buying a product. At the moment, Industry 4.0 is being driven very largely by factory equipment producers and less by the customers. So, there’s not a market crying out for it, but there is a technology that’s looking for an application.
So what my colleague Alexander Verl is saying is not in contradiction to my own stance, because in the final analysis the thing has to be commercially viable.
Might it also be that many companies fear going into Industry 4.0 because they’re worried their data might be stolen from the cloud? What’s the story behind the “Virtual Fort Knox,” in which, according to the Institute, “jointly used sensitive data are as safe as the U.S. gold reserves?
There’s not going to be absolute data security in any system. It would be misleading to say security is going to be a huge problem, because security is already a huge problem. Just as today we take the issue of security with the utmost seriousness, we shall take an equally serious approach when it comes to the issue of the cloud and concurrent users.
Data Security is a Problem
That’s precisely why we at the Fraunhofer IPA have launched the flagship project Virtual Fort Knox, in which we have taken a long hard look at everything: encoding and physical, communicative and organizational security: Who is permitted to do what? Who has access and where?
What do you recommend in general? Should a cloud be located on the Internet or rather in a firm’s own intranet?
Each company has to find its own compromise, and then decide: what data will I not be putting on the net, and what data will I be putting on my own net? What data will be located in the private cloud and what knowledge for the customers and vendors on the public cloud?
Let me return for a moment to CIM, which only began to be more widely adopted after standardization. An expert from the automation sector has told me that standards for Industry 4.0 really are a turbo-boost for many activities, but the road to achieving a standard is very long and rocky. What’s your view on this?
We’re not all that far away from standards: from a technical viewpoint, the problem of standardization has already been very largely solved in some fields.
The actual problem is more the aspirations of firms that want to set these standards. Here we have to cultivate a community spirit. Even the major protagonists in this issue have to rethink their approach and say: yes, perhaps it makes sense that we have standardization and openness here, assuring everyone of access to the Internet of things and services. After all, it’s no use to anyone if at the end of the day we have several different Internets of things dominated by large companies. Only with a standardized system will new business models evolve, able to develop their full benefits for the end-user as well.
The German Research Union, in its “Implementation Recommendations for the Industry 4.0 Future Project,” proposes to take as a model the service-oriented architectures (SOAs), which support interlinked, re-usable applications. What’s your opinion of this proposal?
I’m very much in favor of it. Service-oriented architecture has been discussed since the early 1990s. It’s not such a huge innovation on the IT side; it’s been around for a very long time. Really, it only goes to show how sluggishly the “oh-so-innovative” software industry adopts new ideas of this kind.
What might a vision of Industry 4.0 look like?
We decouple affluence and growth from resource consumption, and provide large amounts of the requisite technology through the Industry 4.0 initiative. The networking, the decentralization and the communication capabilities will lead to high levels of efficiency.
Perhaps on the way there we need some new input: “Inspired by technology” is the watchword at the 4th VDMA Congress on “More Intelligent Production,” which is being held at EMO Hannover for the first time this year. What inspirational insights are you expecting from this congress”?
Inspired and driven by innovative technologies, the resource-efficiency potential for all production factors can be upgraded within the framework of Industry 4.0. Technology, not renunciation, has to be our motto. From the EMO Hannover and the congress, I am expecting approaches in this direction for holistically conceived, sustainable production operations of the future.
Nikolaus Fecht reports on technology and manufacturing from Gelsenkirchen, Germany.