SmartFactory-KL Executive Chairman Detlef Zühlke talks with Smart Manufacturing magazine Editor in Chief Brett Brune
Detlef, we know that Industrie 4.0 was invented in your lab. What was it like to build the first multivendor automation line in the Industrie 4.0 paradigm, at SmartFactory-KL, back in 2005?
Long before the phrase “Industrie 4.0” was invented, we started back in 2004 with the first discussions with industrial players, because we thought that with so many smart homes emerging, there would also be a need for smart factories. We spoke with about 12 mostly regional industrial companies, and they promised to support our idea. That led to the foundation of the SmartFactory-KL Association, in 2005. It’s a membership-driven association.
When we started, it was clear to us that it made no sense to just have a laptop and talk about IT things. We also needed machines to develop a concept for what this smart world will look like in a factory environment. This is why we set up our first demonstrator line, producing something real. There’s always a product which we manufacture on our systems. We need this test bed to experiment with and to demonstrate and learn what the technology of the future will look like in factories.
SmartFactory-KL has more than 45 members, including Cisco, IMB, SAP, John Deere and Johnson Controls in the US. Where would you say the US is compared with nations with which it’s competing on the reconfigurable / flexible manufacturing fronts?
The US entered this process quite late, about five years ago. But since then, its activities have been really great, especially with the programs initiated by the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, now called Manufacturing USA. Today, we also have the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute and the Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which are powerful forces for bringing these topics forward. On the other hand, US activities have always been driven more from the IT side—and less from the manufacturing side. I think this is due to the fact that manufacturing in the US decreased over many years—and it was only in the about last five years, it was recognized that manufacturing will come back and you have to support these developments. So it’s very nice to see how activities in this field are increasing in the US and that they are really supported by the government.
In addition to Germany and the US, what nations do you believe will lead this manufacturing market segment a decade from now, and why?
That’s very hard to say. Germany has always been strong in manufacturing—even when manufacturing was going down in the US and Great Britain. I think for now, we in Germany will remain a leader in this field—in production technologies. But on the other hand, manufacturing is driven more and more by advancements in IT, and this IT progress is very deeply driven from the US. So, this is a wonderful situation—where both nations can learn from each other and can bring many of these things forward together. This is the good news.
On the other side, we have to recognize that there are other nations, especially in Asia, to pay attention to. First of all, there is Japan, which was always a direct competitor in factory automation with Germany. Unfortunately, due to problems it had with the tsunami a couple of years ago, they were pretty late in bringing these things forward. But Japan is now starting to set up a lot of activities.
Finally, we should not overlook China. China is putting the most money into this bucket. China has learned that their business model of just offering cheap labor to the world market will not work in the long term. They also want to become a world leader in factory automation and high-tech production.
I understand SmartFactory-KL’s Industrie 4.0 demonstrator now involves modules from many different companies, including Festo and Bosch Rexroth, and that they can be interchanged within the factory—without interrupting production. Is this factory now engaged in reconfigurable manufacturing? If so, how is it different from flexible manufacturing?
You surely can say that our factory is based on reconfigurable manufacturing. It’s strictly different from flexible manufacturing. We have had flexible machinery for decades: We have flexible systems in automotive manufacturing, for example. But these systems are characterized by having just one line of existing machines—mostly from just one manufacturer. They are able to show some flexibility, in terms of having very similar products but perhaps a choice between 12 different kinds that they can manufacture. Whereas reconfigurable manufacturing means you have the option of always reconfiguring the complete system.
I always compare reconfigurable systems to LEGO blocks. Machinery parts are like LEGO blocks: They are standardized, and you can always configure them in new ways. This setup is very adaptable to the normal adaptations and changes you have in production. So, if you need a lathe, just put a lathe in there. If you need a scale, just put a scale in there. Just plug it in—as easily as plugging in your printer at home. So reconfigurable systems work with the plug-and-play principle, and in this context we call it “plug and produce.”
What products are coming out of your demo factory already? What do you see coming out of it in a year?
We are very happy that we are the first group to really offer a set of products that are compatible with each other. We defined our own standards within this group. Now these products are compatible, based on these standards.
We have a backbone connector, and we use a backbone cable to connect all the modules. We also have interface boxes from the backbone to the different modules. These interface boxes have circuitry built-in—for example, networks, which are like energy switches and energy measurement. We have a pneumatic air supply in these boxes and so on. These boxes represent one such product that today is available from three different companies.
We also have what we jokingly call our machine USB connector. It’s as simple as a USB connector but it’s a bit bigger as it includes current, internet/Ethernet, high voltage etc. This connector is also available from three different suppliers. Additionally, we have Festo flexible conveyors and conveyor locks, so you can lock the modules to each of the sides where the conveyor ends.
All these products were developed within our group. Now, we’re ready to offer the first products that can be used to set up such very, very flexible and reconfigurable systems.
At a recent conference in California, I heard you declare that mass production is “out.” You said we’re moving to more individualization of products, and to local production. Is “mass customization” the main reason reconfigurable manufacturing is necessary? What other reasons would you point to?
I am convinced we are moving into this direction. As I pointed out earlier, the fact that China is putting so much money into the development of high technology makes it clear that China has recognized that just offering cheap labor is not a good business model for the future.
This is driven by consumer behavior: The customer today can sit in front of his computer and configure his products as he wants and then, just with the click of the mouse, can place his order. That customer will not wait for another six weeks for the products to be delivered from, let’s say, China. Production has to move closer to the consumer markets.
But now we need to make the right production technologies available because we don’t have enough cheap labor in typical consumer market areas. We have to bring in more automated technologies. Automated systems must be very flexible and really reconfigurable—because we won’t be producing in masses; we will be producing in much smaller lot sizes, even down to lot size one. This will completely change the markets and also the driving force for production technologies.
What main issue is holding back the shift to smart manufacturing?
Cybersecurity is one of the major threats.
We just experienced an external hacker attack on the German internet where up to one-half of the connections were blocked.This makes it clear that even big and well-known telecom companies are not fully prepared for what can happen.
Think about this happening to a production company. Production will stop for two days or so until everything has been reconfigured. Or, even much worse, what will happen if the recipe of, let’s say, a pharmaceutical product is changed and the change is not recognized? This would be disaster for the company.
We have to do much more work on offering secure systems and finding the right solutions to prevent hackers from the outside—couch hackers, as well as very professional hackers sometimes even supported by governments—from intruding into our systems and changing things. I think we are just at the beginning of recognizing what still has to be done.
What else would make the transition to smart manufacturing smoother and faster?
First of all, we definitely need international cooperation. We are all living and competing on the world market. But we also have different strengths and weaknesses. Stronger collaboration would really help everyone.
This is why our SmartFactory association is so successful: We bring together different players with different competencies. Some of them are competitors, but within our setup, they are willing to cooperate. We treat our partners as puzzle pieces with different competencies, and if you put all these puzzle pieces together, you get the big picture that will be seen from the outside as one good source of information and products. It will help if we move forward in this way.
We also have to be aware of the impact on labor, especially as we move into a more IT-driven world.
We need more people with knowledge of IT—even more than they had before. There is a demand for people trained in mechatronics, and we have to train a lot of people in this field so they can play an active role in this world. It will only succeed if we convince our workers that this the right way to move forward. I know what happened in the ’80s when we talked about integrated manufacturing and factories with no people working in them. This idea was complete nonsense and created a lot of problems, and I think that has been recognized: Since then, we have talked about real human-machine collaboration and the very valuable role of the worker in the factories—because this future world will be a very flexible world in which a lot of unforeseen problems will suddenly come up. Only the human being, with his creativity, is able to solve these problems.
At Industry of Things World in Berlin in September, you said reshoring will happen in large part because people are going to get much more demanding about quick delivery of products—which you have reiterated here. Are you seeing examples of that already?
We see a lot of examples, especially here in the European area. We have a lot of companies bringing production back from China—perhaps not directly into Germany, as a high-tech and high-wages country, but into areas around us, where labor is a bit cheaper but where there is still a very good, educated staff available. We have worldwide examples for reshoring. The Adidas Speedfactory is one. Making shoes will, perhaps, in the future take place on the backside of the store: You order your shoes at the front desk, have a coffee and come back to pick up your personally designed shoes two hours later. They are 3D printed right in the back of the shop.
Especially, high-value products and production will quickly come back to the markets where the customers are located. And we will see it come up very quickly.
What’s the best way for smaller and medium-size enterprises to work to transition to smart manufacturing?
Small and medium-size enterprises present a very interesting question for us. In Europe, our economies rely deeply on small and medium-sized enterprises. So we always have to address the special needs of these companies. This is completely different, for example, from Korea, where they only have the really big enterprises.
The German government just installed—and this was my idea—a so-called network of competence centers for small and medium-size enterprises. The first five centers are operating already. They develop special education, training and support programs that address the needs of these small and medium-size enterprises in the domain of digitization and Industrie 4.0 (IoT). And we learned over the first couple of months that we have to start on a much, much lower level than we expected. We are not preparing the transition from industry 3.5 to 4.0; but we need to start perhaps from 2.5. There is a lot of work still to be done.
In the last decade, since the time when we recognized this movement into lean technologies and lean thinking, many firms have become really lean. As a result, they don’t have people, maybe apart from the owner, who feel responsible for long-term, future strategies. So we first have to bring in people who can recognize what this change means for the company. In this case, we are like an external think tank, creating awareness of the situation, informing the company representatives about new technologies, using our demonstrators to show what is already possible, and offering training for their staff so they can prepare their own people to jump into the race and be successful.