Data flows transmit bits, but not infection. Whether in schools or factories, digitalization can reduce vulnerability to crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Digitally connected assistance systems are not just a means of extending human capability. Their software also fills the gap left by social distancing and ensures that everything is under control – especially in the ramp-up that lies ahead. The industrial internet helps keep track of the utilization and condition of each individual machine, creates transparency throughout the supply chain, and shows the availability of each single component. This kind of connectivity allows companies to react more flexibly to disruptions. The lessons of Covid-19 will pave the way for further investments in the factory of the future. In Germany, it is not just schools that have frequently missed the boat on digitalization. The manufacturing industry also has some catching up to do.
Connectivity as opportunity
In most cases, this isn’t a question of lack of will. Nine out of ten companies in Germany see connectivity as an opportunity and 94 percent believe that Industry 4.0 in particular is essential for competitiveness, according to a study by the digital association Bitkom. In practice, the picture is a different one, with many machines still stuck in the pre-digital past. The VDMA, the association of German machinery and equipment manufacturers, estimates that 80 percent of the country’s existing machinery has yet to be digitalized. Many companies are hesitating to commit large sums of capital. But in fact, machinery can also be retrofitted with software and sensors. For machinery that was originally analog, this opens the door to the industrial internet.
But that’s not the only benefit of the factory of the future. Digital, connected, and boundlessly flexible, it can constantly reinvent itself, depending on requirements. It is guided by a vision of a manufacturing set-up that can produce thousands of different products, down to a batch size of one, without the need for expensive retrofitting. In the factory of the future, the only things that are fixed are the floors, walls, and ceilings. Everything else can be changed at will in a super-smart shop where both data and power transmission is wireless, using induction loops. What’s more, the machines configure themselves, depending on the task at hand. Material delivery systems will also become smart. One example is the that finds its own way around the factory and continuously updates its inner maps to account for changes in its surroundings.
All this clearly shows the direction technological developments are taking. The industrial internet is making manufacturing and logistics more efficient, which is also important for the competitiveness of high-cost locations. To take the example of Bosch, the automotive industry’s current paradigm shift means pressure on costs for our powertrain division, as well as pressure to adapt. And precisely for this reason, it will be investing over the next few years. The expected savings will be twice as high: roughly 1 billion euros by 2025. In 22,000 applications in Bosch plants around the world, Industry 4.0 is already reality. And as a rule, these applications pay for themselves within less than two years. This development is being supplemented increasingly using artificial intelligence (AI).
In manufacturing operations, AI means things such as optical quality control that is capable of learning to detect a fault in the assembly of a printed circuit board. It can also be used to analyze huge volumes of manufacturing data with the aim of detecting anomalies at an early stage. In such cases, AI enhances human capabilities. It assumes routine tasks, performing them more precisely than people could. In highly complex wafer fabs, AI is used in detailed production scheduling, saving time and costs as it guides the wafers through more than 500 processing steps. This alone means a 5 percent faster wafer throughput, with an investment payback time of just three months. This kind of pioneering experience is now translating into business opportunities.
Only when products and processes are compatible will it be possible to avoid isolated technical solutions.
Rolf Najork, Robert Bosch GmbH
More specifically, these AI solutions will supplement our , which is already bringing connectivity to manufacturing and logistics in more than 100 international customer projects. These projects are increasing productivity by as much as 25 percent. But Industry 4.0 not only makes sense from an economic perspective. It does so ecologically as well. For example, it allows energy management to communicate with manufacturing management to reduce the electricity consumption of each individual machine. Factories will thus become more economical and emit far less CO2.
The positive impact of this interplay on efficiency is even greater when 5G comes into the equation. The new wireless standard’s higher transmission speeds make real-time data flows possible – in effect forming the nervous system of the factory of the future.
Germany has been a front runner here, introducing a special model at an early stage. For the first time, 5G allows companies to set up local campus networks. This helps industry quickly try out new applications based on the new standard. Indeed, initial solutions are already being brought to market. Bosch has developed the 5G-capable control platform, which understands more than 30 data protocols and is thus compatible with applications made by various suppliers. Only when products and processes are compatible will it be possible to avoid isolated technical solutions. This too will accelerate progress toward the factory of the future.
For the present, however, we still have pressing problems to solve, with many factories yet to put the consequences of Covid-19 behind them. As promising as its future prospects may be, for now the industrial internet’s main role is as a first-aider in the production ramp-up. This is not only about remote condition monitoring. It can also take the form of a digital shift log that allows shifts to be handed over without personal contact. And it can even further to create a big data solution for detecting bottlenecks in the supply of critical parts early and taking remedial action. All this helps secure delivery capability in times of emergency. Experience such as this will finally give connectivity the boost we have long believed it deserves.
First published in “Die Welt” on 2020/06/13