Industry 4.0: Flexible, reactive and very digital

13 February 2018
Increasingly automated sites, interconnected machines, systems and products, “modules” capable of adapting themselves practically in real-time to consumer demands: digital transformation in industry, particularly dynamic in Germany, has established itself as a vital economic issue. Although humans will not be removed entirely from the equation, their roles will evolve extensively. Explanations and examples with Pierre-Sylvain Roos, expert on these subjects within the Group.
How did the concepts of the factory of the future and Industry 4.0 emerge?

The movement began at the start of the 2010s with the Germans. They wanted to react to the increasing power of the Internet’s major players, in which they see a threat to their industrial fabric. It is true that strengthened by their investment capacity, their mastery of the value chain and their access to a colossal number of clients, the giants of the digital economy potentially appear to be formidable competitors.

Two German industrial companies are pioneers in this field: Siemens and Bosch Rexroth are practically the only two actors in the world that are capable of building a smart factory from start to finish, i.e., completely automating production while integrating all the technological components available today. These two companies have “showcase” smart factories (in Amberg for Siemens, in Hamburg for Bosch Rexroth) and work in partnership with SAP, a German software company.

Why are we talking about a new generation of factories?

Because a lot of software intelligence is introduced in production, and especially because the smart factory is less and less an independent unit and more and more a component of a global value chain that integrates clients, partners, other production sites, etc.

The general idea is to make industrial tools much more flexible, with modular and adaptable chains able to deliver personalised products. This means that there is no longer any centralised planning of processes or product lines.

With regard to “traditional” production methods, in which one makes a certain number of copies that one endeavours then to sell, the ambition is that the client becomes the principal and starts the product’s lifecycle.  

Concretely, how is this made possible?

Firstly, because all true factories of the future are equipped with a “cyber-physical” system: certain IT programmes collaborate with each other to control and order physical equipment. It is in this way, especially, that the order intake tools can interact directly with the production processes. Furthermore, all the elements that constitute a smart factory (the machines, but also the products, the parts and even the technicians) are equipped with sensors or identification components, e.g., RFID (radio-identification). Having sensors everywhere implies massive data production. In the big data era, these can be used to continuously improve production performances.

Does this mean that there would be a strong dimension of artificial intelligence applied to the industry?

Absolutely. We’re talking about the smart factory, which of course has to do with artificial intelligence. For example, regarding maintenance, predictive algorithms anticipate outages and permanently optimise the machine functioning. In certain factories, high-performance 3D cameras scan products at the end of the line, detecting the defects, and can directly inform the system of adjustments to make to the machines. Furthermore, artificial intelligence makes it possible to produce small, personalised production runs: technical data history, specifically, can help machines reconfigure themselves in a more rapid and precise manner.

What kind of equipment and tools do the smart factories use?

Of course, we find many “classic” robots in the factories, but there are also cobots, which are robots working in collaboration with people. For example, they can help a technician move and position heavy objects during their setup. More broadly, their goal is to help people with all kinds of activities that are tedious, repetitive or have weak added value. Since it is very easy to reprogram them, they can be adapted to different kinds of tasks.

Furthermore, from our perspective, we see two major types of tools launched today in the industrial world. First, those linked to mobility, which are game-changers in the maintenance and quality business lines. The factory technicians are equipped with touchscreen tablets. With these, they can directly interact with their computerised maintenance management system (CMMS), while the indoor location tracking indicates in real time where to find such a person inside an industrial site, where such an expert profile is available, where such a machine is stored, etc. Regarding new geo-fencing systems, not only can they locate someone or something within a metre, but they can also send messages and push notifications to users during their entrances to and departures from a given geographic zone and even guide them during their on-site travel.

Other tools employed more and more frequently are those that use augmented reality. For example, embedded applications on tablets are able to identify a part, indicate what potential maintenance action to take and show the operator how to proceed. This is already the case at Stelia Aerospace of Airbus, which provides 3D tablets to assembly operators.

And additive manufacturing?

It is an integral part of the concept. For small parts that are to be produced quickly in a limited quantity, the time saved and the gain in productivity are enormous. The 3D printing workshop is going to become an unmissable, vital part of the factory of the future.

What place will humans have in this industry in the decades to come?

The fantasy of a factory that would function without any human intervention does not correspond at all to what is emerging with the 4.0 approach. Increasingly personalised production, modular machines that must be constantly reconfigured--that cannot function by only using robots. On the other hand, what we know is that industrial jobs will transform majorly, in particular those involving machine, quality and maintenance control.

We also know that the operator of the factory of the future will receive much more assistance and guidance than today. The operator will be identified, welcomed by a digital agent and located and supported by decision-making assistance systems. This does not even take into account all that the new technologies will bring to the operator in terms of security, automatic controls, capacity to have data in real time via mobile devices, etc.

Furthermore, insofar as functioning will be less and less centralised, module control will be entrusted to teams that are more restrained, autonomous and responsible. They will focus especially on resolving problems while working in a very collaborative fashion.

To what extent does this require new kinds of professional profiles?

During the 1970s and the 1980s, there was already a kind of hybridisation of business lines, when what we called mechatronics emerged and associated IT with mechanics and electronics. But this integration has made another advance with the 4.0 approach. We can already observe that this requires specialists in automation techniques who are also software experts.

Consequently, the Germans have created a production technologist curriculum. This business line consists of making a link between product or process development and their implementation in the factory. This takes place while intervening in processes, but with a scope much larger than that of a mechatronics engineer, and always with the objective of being able to deliver products that are more and more personalised.

It will also be necessary to have programming specialists and specialists in robot and machine maintenance, knowing that it involves more and more intelligent equipment. More largely, the industry will continue to recruit computer science engineers. As of today, Siemens employs as many IT engineers as Microsoft…

In what measure are industrial business models called into question by these developments?

In many ways. For example, as a result of the expertise that they brought to develop in this domain, certain actors in the industry are also becoming software publishers. This is how Siemens has commercialised simulation, automation and data feedback software products…It is also how Bosch created a dedicated branch called Bosch Software Innovation, which develops software suites in order to transform a traditional factory into a smart factory.

Likewise, industrial companies can create value based on data generated by their activity. In Germany, we have started seeing certain companies selling their machine parameter data. We have also found examples of this tendency on our side of the Rhine. For example, Enedis, an electricity distributor, developed a value-added service offer based around the use data collected by Linky, the connected electric meter.

Nevertheless, French industrial companies seem less enthusiastic than German companies to commit themselves to this digital transformation. How can this be explained?

By a certain cultural reluctance, certainly, and also by a certain number of objective obstacles to a generalisation of the industry 4.0 approach. The first is the financial barrier: the investments to reach are usually in the tens of millions of euros, which can give companies something to think about. Furthermore, certain technological aspects are not yet totally resolved. We have seen that in the factory of the future, everything is interconnected and works together. Yet for that, there need to be interoperability standards, which are not yet well established today. Another setback: cyber-security questions. From the moment where everything is on a network, and thus connected to the internet, factories become potentially attackable from the outside. And there as well, there is also a step to take in terms of experience feedback, especially when one sees what hackers are capable of. The problem is real, but it will be certainly resolved in several years.

And, of course, there remains the human aspect: how to train and support the people who are currently employed, as well as those just arriving in the work world? One hopes that we will quickly see the development of pathways dedicated to the industry of the future in technical high schools, universities and engineering schools.

Interview excerpted from Randstad’s in-house magazine

Check out the entire article, which is available in French.  

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