Ger­many still has some way to go to ‘smart fac­to­ries’: ex­perts


Col­lab­o­ra­tive ro­bots and in­tel­li­gent ma­chin­ery may have wowed the crowds at this year’s Han­nover Messe, but ex­perts see Ger­man in­dus­try as hav­ing some way to go to­wards in­cor­po­rat­ing them on fac­tory floors in what could be­come the fourth industrial revo­lu­tion.

The un­doubted star of the world’s largest industrial trade fair which closed its doors in the north­ern Ger­man city on Fri­day was YuMi, a col­lab­o­ra­tive dual-armed robot made by Swiss-based au­to­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy group ABB.

ABB says it de­vel­oped YuMi pri­mar­ily for the con­sumer elec­tron­ics in­dus­try and it is ca­pa­ble of han­dling the del­i­cate and pre­cise parts of a wrist­watch to com­po­nents used in cell­phones, tablets and desk­top PCs.

But it will in­creas­ingly be rolled out to cover other mar­ket sec­tors as well, the com­pany said.

And it is com­pletely safe, so that YuMi and hu­man co-work­ers can work side-by-side on shared tasks with­out protective fenc­ing or cages.

Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel put its safety fea­tures to the test when she vis­ited the stand and placed her fin­ger in­side the grip­per on YuMi’s right arm, caus­ing it to stop.

At an­other stand, the Ger­man firm Beck­hoff showed off its au­to­mated as­sem­bly line able to adapt it­self seam­lessly to han­dle dif­fer­ent parts ac­cord­ing to their shape, size and color, while the hu­man co­worker is equipped with a spe­cial smart­watch to mon­i­tor the process and in­ter­vene if nec­es­sary.

Dig­i­tal Revo­lu­tion

In­dus­try views the merg­ing of pro­duc­tion and on­line tech­nol­ogy as the way for­ward for man­u­fac­tur­ing, where “smart” fac­to­ries use in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies to dig­i­tize their pro­cesses, boost­ing qual­ity and ef­fi­ciency at the same time as cut­ting costs.

Dig­i­ti­za­tion is be­ing her­alded as the fourth industrial revo­lu­tion — hence the term widely used in Ger­many of “In­dus­trie 4.0” — fol­low­ing the in­ven­tion of the steam en­gine, mass pro­duc­tion and au­tom­a­ti­za­tion.

With noth­ing less than Ger­many’s mighty industrial prow­ess at stake, politi­cians and busi­ness lead­ers are keen to wave the “In­dus­trie 4.0” flag.

The gov­ern­ment has even launched a new work­ing group of busi­nesses, unions and re­searchers to look into ways of mov­ing dig­i­ti­za­tion for­ward and which will present its ideas and find­ings later this year.

But Ger­man com­pa­nies still have a long way to go, ex­perts say.

A re­cent sur­vey by the BITKOM fed­er­a­tion for in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions and new me­dia, found that cur­rently four out of 10 com­pa­nies in key industrial sec­tors use In­dus­trie 4.0 ap­pli­ca­tions.

The au­to­mo­bile sec­tor is lead­ing the pack, with 53 per­cent of com­pa­nies us­ing such ap­pli­ca­tions, fol­lowed by elec­tro-tech­nol­ogy, the chem­i­cals sec­tor and me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing.

“Dig­i­ti­za­tion of Ger­man fac­to­ries is in full swing, but still has a long way to go,” said BITKOM board mem­ber Win­fried Holz.

“In view of the fierce in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion, say from (main­land) China and the United States, com­pa­nies must in­vest mas­sively in the dig­i­ti­za­tion of their pro­cesses and prod­ucts if Ger­many wants to hold on to its lead­ing po­si­tion in the

man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor,” Holz said.

Catch­ing Up

But Ger­man com­pa­nies still have some catch­ing up to do.

Ac­cord­ing to the BITKOM sur­vey, around one in four com­pa­nies cur­rently have no In­dus­trie 4.0 strat­egy, even if they in­sist it’s on their radar in the fu­ture.

But as many as 14 per­cent of com­pa­nies say dig­i­ti­za­tion is not an is­sue for them at all.

Over­all, 80 per­cent of com­pa­nies said they felt that in­dus­try was too ret­i­cent in the process of dig­i­ti­za­tion, with 72 per­cent say­ing they were put off by the in­vest­ment costs and 56 per­cent by the com­plex­ity of the is­sue, the sur­vey showed.

An­other 56 per­cent said they saw a lack of spe­cial­ist per­son­nel as a prob­lem.

If dig­i­ti­za­tion “is to lead the way for the next 10-15 years, we only par­tially know ex­actly how to im­ple­ment it,” said Wolf­gang Dorst, who heads BITKOM’s own In­dus­trie 4.0 depart­ment.

While many large com­pa­nies have suf­fi­cient fi­nan­cial and hu­man re­sources to dig­i­tize their pro­duc­tion, fre­quently it is the small and medium-sized com­pa­nies which are not so well off fi­nan­cially that have the cre­ative ideas, Dorst noted.

Bern­hard Juch­heim, the head of Jumo, a fam­ily-run com­pany spe­cial­iz­ing in industrial sen­sor and au­to­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy, told AFP that his com­pany would start build­ing its own smart fac­tory in Fulda in cen­tral Ger­many next year.

Crit­ics fear dig­i­ti­za­tion could ren­der hu­mans ob­so­lete in the man­u­fac­tur­ing process.

But the process will ac­tu­ally cre­ate new jobs, said Michael Ruess­mann of the Bos­ton Con­sult­ing Group.

He au­thored a study which found that 390,000 new jobs and an ad­di­tional 30 bil­lion eu­ros (NT$1.003 tril­lion; US$32 bil­lion) in gross do­mes­tic prod­uct could be cre­ated in Ger­many over the next 10 years as com­pa­nies switched to so-called “in­tel­li­gent fac­to­ries.”


Two ac­tors dressed as ro­bots hold up an il­lu­mi­nated 4-0 at the “Lead­ers Dia­logue — In­dus­try 4-0 Made in Ger­many” dur­ing the launch of the “In­dus­try 4-0” plat­form at the Han­nover Messe industrial trade fair in Hanover, cen­tral Ger­many on April 14.

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