Digitalization Is Changing the Future of Manufacturing

Industry is facing major challenges: Customers are demanding new, individual, high-quality and nevertheless inexpensive products within shorter and shorter periods of time. At the same time goods have to be manufactured from increasingly scarce resources, as sustainably as possible. In order to meet these requirements, research and business are turning to the digitalization of manufacturing, in which the real and virtual worlds converge in an Internet of things, services and data.

Here machines, workpieces, means of transport and goods are equipped with embedded systems, i.e. tiny computers, sensors and actuators and are connected with one another. This paves the way for the next jump in manufacturing, Industry 4.0.

The Digital Transformation of Industry

But how will the smart manufacturing of the future work? In the future all machines, from the milling machine to the welding robot, will be networked with one another. And every workpiece will have its own embedded system, storing various pieces of information for example on the customer, the workpiece's desired configuration and its destination. It will be possible to uniquely identify and localize raw parts. Not only will they know the processing steps necessary, these parts will also be networked with the production machines and will be able to communicate with one another to decide exactly when they are to undergo which production step. In the future the entire line will no longer stop when a given station fails. Instead, workpieces and machines will work together to replan the processing sequence. The result is a "self-organizing" adaptive manufacturing process that no longer requires constant human intervention, while remaining under human control.

In order for smart production to run smoothly, the humans and robots involved have to continuously report exactly what they are doing and for example how long parts subject to wear have until they fail. Everything taking place in the real factory will be represented in parallel in the virtual factory. Experts refer to this connection of the real and virtual worlds as a "cyber-physical system"(CPS). The economy is hoping for several advantages from the digital transformation of industry: The flexible factory of the future will make it possible to manufacture according to customer preferences and make production changes ranging up to the integration of new machines at any time without substantial effort. Machine utilization levels will be higher, the consumption of resources will drop, and there will be fewer rejects.

"Plant Adapter" Simplifies Communication Interfaces

Another important prerequisite for smart factories is the ability of machines to communicate with one another, with higher-level IT systems and even with the workpieces and production workers. However, the networking of existing facilities quickly reaches its limits, since machines from different vendors usually communicate using different data interfaces and protocols. One solution here is the "Plant Adapter", an industrial data gateway developed by experts at the Fraunhofer Institute for Machine Tools and Forming Technology IWU in Chemnitz, Germany. A combination of hardware and software, the "Plant Adapter" is a solution for universal connection of machines and other components in manufacturing and production infrastructure. It collects a wide variety of production and machine information and prepares it for reading and processing on a platform-independent basis. "Data as a resource is constantly growing in importance," explains Dr. Tino Langer, head of digitalization in manufacturing at the IWU. "New methods and solutions are needed in order to increase the value of data in the manufacturing environment even further."

Smart devices such as Smart Glasses and the Coaster® provide important information to humans.
© Fraunhofer IPT, Fraunhofer IML
Smart devices such as Smart Glasses and the Coaster® provide important information to humans.

Vehicle Manufacturing without Cycles and Lines

© ARENA2036 © Werner Sobeck

The industry and research sectors are working together to make this vision of the self-organizing factory a reality. "Fraunhofer has an enormous amount of expertise in the areas production, mechanical engineering, logistics, embedded systems, security and information and communication technologies. We can lay important foundations for the manufacturing of the future and can develop solutions for smart, networked manufacturing. In doing so we will contribute to a sustainable value-added process in Germany," points out Professor Reimund Neugebauer, President of the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft. In various projects researchers are currently investigating how the factory of the future could look, how to design flexible production, what the role of humans will be in smart manufacturing and how companies can retain control over their data. The Fraunhofer experts are not only developing important component parts of Industry 4.0, they're also formulating comprehensive concepts for smart manufacturing. Thus for example experts from the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA are working together with the University of Stuttgart and partners from industry in the ARENA2036 project to redesign future automobile development and production along the entire value creation chain. "We're investigating a fundamentally new concept in vehicle manufacturing, without cycles and without lines; we're connecting lightweight processes with tactile robotics, developing efficient, adaptable logistics systems and at the same time we're working towards an intuitively configurable exchange of information," explains Professor Thomas Bauernhansl, head of the Fraunhofer IPA in Stuttgart.


Flexibly Convertible Factories

Shorter innovation cycles and individual products call for not only flexible production, but also convertible factories that can be quickly reequipped to manufacture new articles. "One of the challenges faced by Industry 4.0 IT architecture is adapting to changes, whether resulting from integration of new facilities or processes in the system or from changes in existing production systems, for example because a particular new product variant is to be produced," says Dr.-Ing. Olaf Sauer, deputy director of the Fraunhofer Institute of Optronics, System Technologies and Image Exploitation IOSB in Karlsruhe. In the project "SecurePLUGandWORK", science and business are working together on an intelligent link between the individual components of the smart factory. Their idea: Similar to the USB standard for PCs, every component will recognize changes and react automatically.

Humans Wanted

In order for humans to be able to work properly in the smart factory of the future, new human-machine interfaces will be needed: Smart Devices. These mobile devices are equipped with various sensors and connected on a wireless basis. The Coaster®, only about the size of a beverage coaster, can be used in logistics. The device not only features a camera and a display, it can also communicate with other machines via various interfaces. The exact function the Coaster® performs is decided by the applications that run on it. Thus for example the machine app shows production machine energy consumption, run-time and machine error messages. In order to seamlessly integrate the worker in production information processes, the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology IPT is taking a user-centered point of view in the design of its "oculavis" software platform. "oculavis" can be used together with apps for terminal devices such as Smart Glasses or tablets to optimally control the factory's information flow to and from the worker. For example, at Robert Bosch Elektronika Kft. in Hungary, "oculavis" uses Smart Glasses to make it possible for even untrained employees to conduct complex installation processes within a very short period of time. Starting in May a spin-off partnership with Fraunhofer IPT will enhance and commercialize "oculavis".

Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation IFF

Securing Information in the Industrial Data Space

Digitalization also entails certain dangers. What's the best way to protect information from unauthorized access when all these components are networked with one another? How can companies retain control over their own data? Together with representatives from business and in partnership with the German federal government, Fraunhofer is working on an international open and nevertheless secure data space, the Industrial Data Space. Companies can exchange data with one another in this protected space according to rules they define themselves, without having to relinquish control over their information.


Can Europe really benefit from the fourth Industrial Revolution? Yes. The digital transformation of manufacturing will bring about enormous opportunities for EU, according to the results of a study by strategy consultants Roland Berger conducted on behalf of the Federation of German Industries (Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie e.V. or BDI). By 2025 Europe could achieve growth of as much as 1.25 trillion Euros in gross industrial value creation. For Germany alone the result will be additional value-added potentials of up to 425 billion Euros, only however if the migration to Industry 4.0 succeeds. The highly promising possibilities of networked, more efficient production and new business models also bear certain risks: If German industry should lose its vanguard position in value creation, the result could be massive setbacks totaling up to 220 billion Euros.