Automation: Leaders unite!

Jane Gray reports on a talk by German industrialist Professor Henning Kagermann on the origins and structure of Industry 4.0.

About Professor Kagermann

Prof Kagermann is president of Germany’s National Academy of Science and Engineering and was formerly CEO of industry software giant SAP.

He has played a key role in designing and establishing the national platforms and working groups in Germany which support understanding, uptake and exploitation of the Industrie 4.0 vision.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, Industrie 4.0 (hence Industry 4.0) is a term coined by German industrialists for a new vision for industrial competitiveness.

It is based on the combination of certain industrial, communications and service technologies to offer high wage economies the power to be competitive, despite globalisation and the availability of cheap labour in emerging economies.

It includes several principles, none of which are revolutionary in their own right, but which together promise a new industrial paradigm – one that has social change and the improvement of living standards at its heart. Briefly, these principles include:

  • Individualisation or mass customisation: making very small batch sizes, potentially of one, at volume
  • Flexibility and urbanisation of production
  • Dynamic design of business and engineering processes
  • Flexible workforce: allowing better work-life balance and indivualised work planning for employees
  • Optimisation of aging workforce: via smart assistance systems
  • Modular uptake and upgrade: existing infrastructure can be replaced gradually

In the last year whisperings about the work being done in Germany to create a structured movement towards Industry 4.0 have grown significantly in the UK. The topic is now a frequent source of debate and aspiration in forward thinking industry forums like TM’s Automation Advisory Board and at conferences like Automate UK.

The structure for the national Working Group for Industry 4.0

Professor Kagermann’s appearance at the Royal Academy of Engineering last week was, therefore, a significant and popular event which drew in manufacturing leaders from GE, Jaguar Land Rover , MacAlloy, Rolls-Royce, Siemens and more. An impressive range of industrial research representatives from leading centres like Loughborough University, Aston University, WMG and The Manufacturing Technology Centre were also present.

In a lecture titles Industrie 4.0 – what can the UK learn from Germany’s industrial strategy, professor Kagermann described the melting pot of circumstance and design which allowed Germany to create its concept for a fourth industrial revolution and take the lead in its realisation.

He explained how the parallel findings of a high-tech strategy published in 2006, and of a new ICT industry summit triggered research by a small working group within the national Industry-Science Research Alliance, or Forschunsunion.

After publishing a report to government which identified German national strengths, weaknesses and opportunities in relation to Industry 4.0, a larger working group was formed under the impetus of Kagermann and Siegfied Dais, CEO of Bosch, to turn the research into action.

“We made a list of [powerful] CEOs that we knew. We called them and explained the vision. We asked to have a dedicated person to work with us for two or three months. We asked them for Eu10,000 and then we started work,” summarised Kagermann.

The larger working group, which presented a vision paper on Industry 4.0 t the German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the end of 2012, comprised 16 companies, 10 institutes, two trade unions and four trade associations.

Within this working group, five sub-groups dedicated themselves to exploring what a Smart factory should look like, the ‘real’ environment, the economic environment, the human element and the technology factors involved in achieving Industry 4.0.

Kagermann explained how the working group started setting up demonstrators that played to national strengths in exploiting embedded systems. Next steps will involve building capability and confidence in the exploitation of internet technologies he said.

To this end, the Industry 4.0 strategy is now complimented by a Smart Services strategy to establish robust cloud-based business networks that integrate with production systems.

Kagermann also stressed to his audience that the working group’s investigations into the human impact of industry 4.0 – the effect it will have on the types of jobs required in manufacturing, the hours people work and the relationship between industry and society – was a critical element to the realisation of technology potential.

He also challenged the assumption that the uptake of Industry 4.0 technologies should inevitable lead to “factories with no people”.

However automated production may become, “people will play a key role,” in Industry 4.0 he stated.

Furthermore, Kagermann predicted a new paradigm of the human-machine relationship. “Today we match the pace of the machine. It should be the other way around,” he enthused.

The Industry 4.0 working group in Germany is now in the process of developing demonstrator projects and production facilities – the first of which will be set in an urban environment.

Responses and conclusions

Professor Kagermann’s presentation posed an indirect question as to Britain’s readiness or capability to absorb Industry 4.0 type technologies in its industrial base, and the readiness of workers and wider society to accept them. It is also questioned Britain’s ability to compete in a world where other nations have advanced ahead of it down the Industry 4.0 road.

Following Kagermann’s presentation, a panel of UK industry leaders from Rolls-Royce, Randox Laboratories and Jaguar Laand Rover participated in a question and answer session with delegates on their reactions to the Industry 4.0 vision.

The subjects explored during this debate included the feasibility of cloud-based business networks, data ownership, collaboration within ecosystems – including between competitors, and the requirements of ‘servitized’ manufacturing in which businesses sell lifestyle, experience and capability – not products.

At the close of the meeting there was an impression that many had been deeply struck by the potential of the Industry 4.0 vision – but also that many were struggling to grasp how fully their own business models, supply chains and product lifecycle responsibilities might be altered by it.

Some more technology savvy delegates in fast moving industries were dissatisfied with the acknowledgement of crowd sourcing and open collaboration tools as a means to shake up accepted business norms.

However, as delegates dispersed there was talk of the need for more “collaboration for the greater good” between the heads of Britain’s industrial Titan’s – like Siemens, Jaguar Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and more.

This Royal Academy lecture asked what the UK can learn from Germany’s manufacturing strategy.

If one thing was taken on board by those present, it was that British industrial leaders  could become better connected and communicative for the benefit of all.