Industry 4.0: Tapping the Potential

Foto: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

At HANNOVER MESSE, the world’s leading trade fair for industrial technology, Industry 4.0 – in other words, the fourth Industrial Revolution – was high up on the agenda. ‎Software providers such as SAP are also looking closely at how to tap the “Internet of Things” for new, smart production systems. But what is Industry 4.0 really about? According to a research report, Industry 4.0 involves hooking up smart machines, warehouse management systems, and operating facilities in manufacturing in such a way that they can exchange information with each other autonomously, trigger activities, and control each other independently. Industrial manufacturing and IT systems are linked using cyber-physical production systems.

The study by the advisory council Forschungsunion, which works on innovation policy in Germany, and the German National Academy of Science and Engineering (acatech) goes on to say: “In the newly-emerging smart factories, the production logic is completely different: Smart products can be uniquely identified, localized at any time, and know their history, their current status, and alternative paths to the target status.” On the one hand, production systems are connected vertically with business processes. On the other, they are linked horizontally with distributed value networks, which are controlled in real time from the order to outbound logistics.

Participants believe it still needs time

However, a number of years will pass before Industry 4.0 becomes a reality in German companies – and, after all, Germany is still the fourth biggest industrial nation in the world. This was what the German Association for Electrical, Electronic, and Information Technologies (VDE) recently discovered when it questioned 1,300 member companies and universities. Only slightly more than a fifth believe that Industry 4.0 concepts will become accepted “to an economically significant scale” before 2020. Seventy percent are of the opinion that this goal will not be achieved by 2025. However, most of those surveyed expect to see specific benefits from smart factories. Three quarters anticipate greater flexibility in the area of production, while 60% expect more efficient use of resources and savings in energy consumption.

Next Page: The Three Hurdles for Industry 4.0

According to those who participated in the survey, the three biggest hurdles to setting up smart factories are unresolved questions regarding IT security (66%), the lack of norms and standards, and a great demand for staff training measures (both 43%). The fact that companies are particularly bothered by security issues is understandable. Even today, cyber criminals can hijack and paralyze SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems using computer worms like Stuxnet. Furthermore, new, unknown threats will emerge when warehouse management systems, plants, supply networks, and business IT systems are connected online. However, none of these issues sound too hard to handle.

Interface and communication standards a must

To create an intercompany network and to dovetail all organizations, there is a need for common, consistent interface and communication standards. The Forschungsunion and acatech acknowledge that many standards currently exist, for example, for industrial communication, engineering, modeling, IT security, device integration, and the digital factory. However, these are not integrated into a superordinate reference architecture. According to the VDE study, another reason why Industry 4.0 is currently being thwarted is because the information and communication infrastructures are still not powerful enough. Though the time for the Internet of Things will surely come.