The “Smart Factory” of the Fourth Industrial Revolution: An Interview with Fraunhofer’s Thomas Bauernhansl

The fourth industrial revolution is upon us. At least that’s the view of German business leaders and the government, who are blazing a new path in manufacturing with the Industrie 4.0 initiative. As in the third industrial revolution, information technology will be key enabler. But what comes next will intimately link manufacturing with the internet, the ubiquitous digital platform of the 21st century, along with other advanced computer technologies. The result will be what is sometimes referred to as the smart factory.

This convergence of IT with industry is the mission of Industrie 4.0, a German government-led initiative to define and develop this advanced notion of computerized manufacturing. Germany has become an industrial juggernaut in the wake of reunification, and efforts like Industrie 4.0 aim to keep the country at the forefront of global manufacturing.

At the upcoming ISC High Performance Conference in Frankfurt, Prof. Dr.-Ing. Thomas Bauernhansl will speak about this topic as part of the event’s Industry Track. Bauernhansl, who is the director of Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering & Automation and the Institute of Industrial Manufacturing & Management at University of Stuttgart, has worked in the German automotive and mechanical engineering industry for eight years, and has been involved in a number of R&D efforts in leading-edge manufacturing technologies.

We asked Dr. Bauernhansl to preview his talk and give us his personal perspective on the ramifications of this fourth industrial revolution.

TOP500 News: We’ve had automation in factories for decades.  How is this notion of a smart factory different?

Thomas Bauernhansl: What’s new about the smart factory is not just digitization, but the possibility of interlinking intelligent production systems in real-time. This can only be realized through big data analytics.

The smart factory will also make a huge step towards decentralization. Actual physical data will be acquired by means of sensors. The smart factory will also use worldwide available data, which will have to be analyzed and stored. The networking will be performed by means of digital communication technology and the operation in the physical world will take place by means of actors, which could be human beings or robots.

The goal of the small factory will be customizing services in a specific way for the end-user customer. This can only be economically successful through cooperation via weakly hierarchical networks.

TOP500 News: What types of computational technologies need to be applied to make this possible?

Bauernhansl: The aspect of creating valuable products through data and know-how will play a central role in all business models in the near future. The challenge is generating usable information and knowledge automatically from the huge mass of data gathered, and to manage the large data quantity economically.

Internet of things (IoT) platforms form the backbone of many new business models and allow near real-time communication and high transparency of all transactions.

So-called Cyber-Physical Production Systems (CPPS) will be key to the smart factory. There are three corresponding layers. At the application layer, information retrieval for manufacturing control and operation takes place. The platform layer is responsible for the control and operation of platforms for the integration of heterogeneous IT services. Lastly, the component layerprovidessensors, actuators, machines, orders, staff and products. Taken together these layers lead to the digitization of manufacturing that integrates socio-economic needs with advanced technical capabilities.

TOP500 News: In general, how do smart factories change the competitive landscape for manufacturers?

Bauernhansl: Manufacturers will have to be much more flexible and versatile; they will have to let go of control. Complex systems such as these cannot be fully controlled anymore since intelligent machines, orders and tools make their decisions based on dynamic data. Humans will not always be able to understand why something is done. Instead they will have to recognize and control what is done.

Companies will have to cooperate – and this is also new – with competitors. This is necessarily the case, because individualized, personalized production will be organized via production platforms which are used by many different stakeholders: customers, suppliers, service providers and others. This new kind of business ecosystem inter-links the entire production process.

The company‘s product can become a vehicle for transporting information and know-how. The relationship between use and user will become transparent, which opens new possibilities. In order to take advantage of them, one must understand this new kind of business logic, and establish business models that operate in a cooperative manner, even though competition will still exist. The potential economic savings this can provide are immense.

In addition, a high level of cooperation between the customer, the supplier and partners will be important, which extends far beyond a pure buyer-seller relationship. In the ideal case, the consumer is included in the production process, which will provide extra value. As a result, he takes on some of the accompanying costs of complexity. In the process, the customer reveals important data, upon which companies can build additional services in order to conduct other business, directly or indirectly.

TOP500 News: Let’s take a specific example. How does something like this affect an industry like automobile manufacturing?

Bauernhansl: Some principles that have been implemented by industrial efficiency pioneer Frederick Taylor in the 19thcentury will definitely come to an end now. Fixed cycle production and assembly lines will be replaced by modular mobile working stations. For automotive production this means, just as an example, that the car-body will move on an automated guided vehicle to a smart machine, which can communicate in real-time via Wi-Fi or the internet. The machine “tells” the automobile part that it is ready to be manufactured. Thus, once again, the automobile industry will be transformed.

Industrie 4.0 is being described by many as the fourth industrial revolution. This is also linked with the new requirements in the automobile branch. The demand is increasing for many different sorts of vehicles and especially for individuality. While in the first three revolutions a higher production was always the goal, now the ability to manufacture with agility and meeting customized demands has priority.

TOP500 News: What will be the role of the factory worker, if any, in this new environment?

Bauernhansl: People will still be in the center of production. There will be fewer staff in areas such as marketing, order processing, and management. But the factory still needs the workers. They will be relieved from boring tasks and become a conductor in the factory orchestra. With the help of intelligent IT tools, they will concentrate on making decisions and controlling production. The worker will have to gain new skills in IT and others areas.

There have to be serious efforts to integrate already existing IT into a seamless and flexible smart factory infrastructure based on worker-centric and data-driven technology building blocks. Also, more and more multimodal man-machine interfaces will be used.

New solutions will empower workers on the shop floor with smart factory IT infrastructure. Advancement will be gained through integrating several building blocks from a flexible smart factory infrastructure, focusing on workers’ needs, expectations and requirements, and being supported by organizational measures and change management.

In the fourth industrial revolution, the worker will be assisted by powerful robots. These robots are able to execute new routines within a few minutes, and to show employees which steps are to be carried out. They will work continuously and cost the entrepreneur the same amount any time of day.

TOP500 News: What are the main challenges to turning this concept into reality, both technical and cultural?

Bauernhansl: The most important challenges are a fast-working internet infrastructure everywhere and standard interfaces for cyber-physical systems. We need security and safety for big data applications on manufacturing platforms, so that people in industry can trust the new technologies connected with the industrial internet -- Industrie 4.0.

The potential for sustainable economic growth is present. That should be reason enough for the German industry to break new ground and go forward in the fourth industrial revolution with appropriate investments and swiftness. This is the only way to remain internationally competitive and to secure prosperity.

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