A smart factory is the vision of a production environment in which logistics processes and production systems organize themselves as automatically as possible and with little use of human resources. The potential for added value is enormous, especially in the highly developed German industry, but the implementation is also cost-intensive and not trivial. In this expert article by Jana Eschweiler, Director Marketing & Sales Communication, you can find out what makes the Smart Factory special and which development steps are necessary.
The technical basis for intelligent factories is so-called cyber-physical systems. They consist of software components with mechanical and electronic parts that communicate with each other with the help of the Internet of Things (IoT). In the future, this also includes communication between the product and the production system. A product can communicate its manufacturing information to the machine in machine-readable form, for example, via an RFID chip. With this information, the development path through the production plant and the individual production steps can be controlled.
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IoT platforms enable different devices and applications to be networked in a smart factory. The platform allows for information to be exchanged by creating cross-system links. In this way, data can be analyzed and controlled.
Therefore, an IoT platform serves as the center for both M2M communication and the exchange between man and machine. In this role, she is of central importance for IoT in the industrial economy. This is why 43 percent of German industrial companies are already using an IoT platform, as a study by the digital association BITKOM shows.
Digital twins are digital images of physical machines. In this way, they can help ensure optimal product design and error-free operation. The basis for the development is a high-precision three-dimensional CAD model. All the essential parameters of the planned product have already been created, for example, sensors, material, or movement patterns of the real machine. The model allows performance and error analysis to be carried out at an early stage and thus often makes a prototype unnecessary.
Not only in development but also in simple operation, digital twins provide enormous added value. Even when the machine is with the buyer and operator, the twins stay in constant contact thanks to the fast and inexpensive data exchange. With the help of modern sensors, all relevant data is permanently recorded and transmitted to the manufacturer. The engineers can then test troubleshooting or inefficiencies directly on the digital twin.
Hardware Solutions As The Basis Of The Intelligent Factory
Due to its complex basic structure, the Internet of Things (IoT) requires complex solutions for linking the various applications and devices. Different hardware solutions are available. Promising future solutions are emerging with Low Power – Wide Area (LPWA) and 5G.
LPWA technologies are relatively new, but they have two distinctive properties that give them great potential: They consume little electricity and cover a large area. The built-in batteries can often provide energy for years without having to be replaced. At the same time, they offer an extended range of at least 500 meters. They are also considered to be technically reliable and inexpensive. Enormous physical obstacles like buildings are less of a problem than other technologies because LPWA penetrates walls quite nicely.
Will 5G Bring The Breakthrough?
These factors could ensure that LPWA represents a bridging technology on the way to the 5G networks. Current LPWA solutions come from Ingenu, LoRa, Link Labs, Sigfox, and Weightless.
5G networks have even more significant potential to form the basis for the Internet of Things. However, about five years can be expected before it can be used for the masses. The first global test projects will be started in the next few months, including in Hamburg and Venice. In the Port of Hamburg, traffic lights and locks are controlled, and barges use sensors to collect data on air quality and wind strength in real-time.
Process Simplification Through Blockchain Technology
A central requirement of industrial production is a maximum machine and process efficiency. This can best be achieved if all people and machines involved in the process receive the most critical information. However, the management and protection of this shared information is complex and requires a lot of trust.
Distributed ledger technologies such as blockchain can reduce costs and effort here to simplify information sharing significantly. Thanks to the fully automated and digitized flow of information, machines can also easily access the required data via so-called machine-to-machine (M2M) communication. In this way, buyers and suppliers are connected even more closely, and at low costs, the result is increased trust and the creation of free resources.
The implementation of blockchain technology could offer decisive added value, especially in the supply and production chain. This ensures more efficiency and transparency and provides a wide range of product customization options for individual customers. Mechanics of artificial intelligence can also take care of the improvement of workflows, workloads, and human-machine communication in automation processes.
Application Examples Of The Blockchain
One industry that is under intense pressure to innovate in the automotive industry. Here, the blockchain plays an increasingly important role in the perception of those responsible and the first test and kick-off projects. Porsche, for example, wants to use the technology to simplify vehicle access and make it safer. Audi also intends to use a blockchain in a larger project to improve distribution. Daimler is even experimenting with its cryptocurrency. Numerous other application examples are conceivable, for instance, about securing ownership of vehicles, repair processes, or mileage.
Smart Contracts Remove Obstacles
So-called smart contracts are a further development of the blockchain. The decentralized application (DApp) was first developed on the Ethereum blockchain. With smart contracts, contracts can be mapped or technically supported. The computer logs monitor the agreed services of all contractual partners and can automatically trigger processes, such as a transfer, if the defined contractual services have been fulfilled.
If the technology becomes established and spreads, it can replace traditional contracts; the potential seems enormous. Here, too, as with other blockchain technologies, the strength lies in the trust that they create. Especially in international business, with unknown contractual partners, or in an automated environment, for example, with small, recurring transactions, trade barriers can be reduced cost-effectively.
IOTA – The Distributed Ledger For The Smart Factory?
In the area of blockchain, the IOTA Foundation is causing a sensation, especially in German-speaking countries. The “Tangle” from IOTA is similar to the blockchain, a distributed ledger, but is based on a different basic concept and can be interpreted as further development. In contrast to Bitcoin, the transactions do not require cost-intensive and energy-intensive mining but run simultaneously on other chains in the network and are therefore much more efficient and scalable.
One focus of IOTA is machine-to-machine communication. At CeBIT 2018, the IOTA partner VW presented a proof-of-concept (POC) of the IOTA protocol to implement the vision of autonomous driving and automated processes in the mobility sector. Johann Jungwirth, an employee of VW, holds a seat on the board of trustees of the IOTA Foundation, the operative body of the platform. Another close partner of IOTA is Fujitsu; the Japanese tech group that recently made an evident commitment to IOTA:
“Fujitsu is well-equipped to help roll out IOTA as the new protocol standard as we are experts in both IT services and the manufacturing of IT products,” said Leopold Sternberg, Program Manager, Industry 4.0 Competence Center at Fujitsu.
How can the vision of the intelligent factory now be implemented at the company level? The following steps can help.
Bring Machines Up To Date
Machines are long-term capital goods, and some manufacturing plants are correspondingly old. However, modern technologies are a prerequisite for networking physical and digital components in a smart factory. Therefore, any modernization that may be necessary should be one of the first steps on the way to a networked factory.
Define Business Purpose
The specific benefit should be identifiable and quantifiable. The urge for more digitization is not enough as a mere goal. The conversion to an intelligent factory should always be viewed as an element in the overall structure of operational technology and information technology. The business purpose also includes searching for new business fields and earning opportunities, for example, via consumption-oriented services where customers no longer have to buy a machine but only pay for quantifiable use. Keyword: servitization.
Internal Communication And Training
In some places, the fear of digitization is excellent, especially regarding job security and, thus, future personal prospects. That is why intensive internal communication is necessary to prepare employees for the change. This also includes long-term training and further education offers because people will continue to be the essential resource for industrial companies in the future.
Start Agile And Scale
Small projects with an agile character bring incredible insights and motivate employees. The result is earlier market maturity, a better product, and thus better-added value. If these steps are successful, the projects and products can be scaled, for example, by expanding them to other locations.