Case Study: A catalyst for smart manufacturing with Germany’s SmartFactory

Germany’s SmartFactory has created the model for collaborative, open-technology systems that bring automation and IT together

By Dr.-Eng. Detlef Zühlke and Dr.-Eng. Dominic Gorecky, German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI)

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Digitization is without question the major driving force that is turning our world inside out. The spaces around us are increasingly pervaded by smart and connected systems. What started with the Internet of people will end in an Internet of everything. The phenomenon known as the Internet of Things (IoT) will affect settings of all kinds—homes, cities, traffic, logistics, retail and medicine. And it will not stop at our factory gates.

McKinsey estimates the potential economic impact of IoT applications in 2025 is between $3.9 and $11.1 trillion, of which $1.2 to $3.7 trillion is allotted to IoT applications within the factory environment. Also known as Smart Manufacturing, or Industry 4.0 in Germany, the IoT is the technological driver for fully networked manufacturing ecosystems.

In a future where all “factory objects” will be integrated into networks, traditional control hierarchy will be replaced by a decentralized self-organization of products, field devices and machines. Production processes will become so flexible that even the smallest lot size can be produced cost-effectively and just in time to the customer’s individual demands.

The paradigm of smart manufacturing has awakened the vision of highly efficient, customer-driven factories that seamlessly connect to surrounding smart ecosystems.

Despite this huge potential, the introduction of IoT technologies in the rather traditional domain of manufacturing, where investment cycles are long and robustness of processes and technologies outweigh striving for innovation, will not happen abruptly. Too many questions have first to be answered. As IoT technologies penetrate ever deeper into our factories to the smallest piece of equipment, technology providers and factory planners are confronted with a variety of hurdles:

    • how to assure interoperability, when connecting heterogeneous systems
    • how to guarantee real-time behavior and predictability, when thousands of devices communicate at the same time
    • how to prevent disruptors, or competitors, to take over control of highly networked production systems
    • determining the benefit or return for investing in IoT technologies.

To compensate for technological uncertainty and financial risks, it requires adequate pilot environments, where smart manufacturing technologies and strategies can be implemented, evaluated and showcased for the first time. This is why almost every big IT or automation technology company has built its own smart manufacturing lab, where it can test and demonstrate proprietary solutions. But they are missing one important point: Smart manufacturing is a network paradigm affecting wide-ranging areas from automation to IT, from digital planning of a product to its recycling, and from smart sensors to the business applications.

There is no single-solution provider that can cover all of these aspects at once. So, for holistic solutions to emerge, there has to be a network of technology providers joining forces and competences to develop compatible solution blocks that fit the future requirements of technology users.

Collaboration model

The SmartFactoryKL in Kaiserslautern, Germany, is one of the places where holistic smart manufacturing solutions are developed jointly within a network of more than 40 companies and the research community (Figure 1). This includes large multinational enterprises such as Cisco, Huawei, IBM, SAP and Siemens, as well as small and medium-sized enterprises. Founded in 2005, the SmartFactoryKL association is recognized as the first vendor-independent factory lab for industrial IoT applications. An important element of its mission is to test innovative factory technology under realistic conditions and to move it as quickly as possible from the laboratory to the marketplace.

A pragmatic approach is key for the collaboration within SmartFactoryKL. The association connects technology providers and users, regardless of competitive aspects. The group of technology providers divides into companies with and without overlapping business/competence areas. Technology providers with overlapping business/competence areas find a platform, where they can set vendor-independent standards and make proprietary technologies and business models ready for open ecosystems.

In contrast, technology providers with complementary business/competence areas benefit from networking opportunities arising by connecting different domains—for example, at the interface between classic automation technology and IT systems, such as big data applications or digitization of maintenance processes.

Also read: The manufacturing industry is on the verge of an evolution

Finally, the group of technology users represents manufacturing companies that want to prepare for the smart manufacturing era and learn how to introduce IoT technologies within their individual manufacturing setups. The network is complemented by research partners. Their role is to draw and continuously adapt the smart manufacturing vision and to coordinate the company collaboration. Joined together like puzzle pieces, the roles and competences of the individual SmartFactoryKL members contribute to the big picture of smart manufacturing.

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