(images: (c) Peter Kronfeld)
Imagine you stand in front of a monitor and a software developer asks what information you would like to receive from a production line. While you answer, the developer clicks here and there to put together an app that visualizes the desired performance data (speed, throughput, job progress) and conditions (motor temperatures, etc.). The jaw-dropper: the machines are located hundreds of miles away in a plant in Hungary and the information is ‘live’ – based on data that the machines transmit to the globally accessible cloud. I experienced this two days ago at Hannover Messe in Hanover, Germany. The exhibits at the world’s largest industrial fair were hugely impressive. A visit could turn any skeptic of Industry 4.0 and digitization into a true believer. Here are a few highlights.
Industrial giants like Siemens and General Electric are opening their products to cloud applications. New controllers function as IP addresses and data sources for the cloud while existing machines can be retrofitted with connector boxes. The global infrastructures absorbing these huge amounts of data are based on Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services or Google server farms. These clouds function as giant data hubs that allow authorized users to select, view, download, combine and process the data with any device, at any time, and from anywhere in the world. At the same time, the software industry has developed tools that continuously download and update the data and visualize it with a few mouse clicks. The booths of the big companies also hosted hundreds of smaller IT and software vendors who can develop virtually any application based on this data for things like monitoring, process analysis, predictive maintenance, supply chain management, and many more.
Forget traditional robots that perform the same task over and over and must be locked in cages. I stepped into the path of robots at the show, stuck my arm into their travel paths and placed my hand on bins into which they were supposed to place workpieces. Nothing bad happened. And I, a layperson, programmed them by placing the robot into a kind of learning mode and guiding it through each movement and work step. Afterwards, the robot did the work on its own. It was almost like training a human coworker. I then moved the robot to another workstation. Based on a little sticker with an optical code, the robot remembered what it had learned yesterday and immediately went to work.
Have you heard of SEW Eurodrive, one of the world’s leading makers of gearmotors? The company exhibited not only its gears and drives, but a smart lean production line that assembled drives right at the booth. It featured data glasses for visualizing the work steps, autonomous transport systems, software-controlled and connected electrical screwdrivers, pick-by-light systems, optical inspection systems, and more. The message: if products are becoming increasingly customized, you no longer advertise their features, but the flexible and reliable processes for making them.
OK, they take some getting used to and make you look kind of goofy. The current models are still clunky, and it can be embarrassing if people suddenly move their arms in strange ways for no apparent reason. (Let’s not forget that touching your screen was also frowned upon until a few years ago, and today we all do it.) I am talking about technicians wearing data glasses. But once you have witnessed how an untrained show visitor uses them to analyze, repair or operate a complex manufacturing machine, you quickly realize the potential of this technology.
Smart factory technology is picking up speed in many industries, and the many visitors in the Digital Factory hall in Hanover were proof that customers are paying attention. What’s noticeable: the smart factory grows because of the contributions of many small players. IT companies build speedy networks and data storage systems, software developers create new tools, machine manufacturers make their machines’ data accessible, etc. In this kind of swarm, everyone complements everyone else, even if it initially looks uncoordinated. But the end result is enormous speed.
One number I heard at the show was particularly impressive. During a Siemens presentation, one of the cloud developers stated that 50 percent of the machines and devices that transmit their data to the Internet today were not part of the Internet of Things yesterday, i.e. 24 hours ago. I could not confirm this number, but based on what I saw at this trade fair, I am ready to believe it.