Much has been written about Industry 4.0 being the next industrial revolution, but how many Australian manufacturers really understand the concept? Alan Johnson reports.
The next industrial revolution, Industy 4.0, is described as a marketplace in which machines offer their services and exchange information with products in real time.
While some Australian manufacturers have dismissed Industry 4.0 as just a gimmick, many large international companies, including Siemens, see it as the next stage of industrial manufacturing, describing it as a paradigm shift towards smart factories, and even proclaiming it as the advent of a fourth industrial revolution.
Chris Vains, Head of Siemens Automation Systems Australia & NZ, describes the first three industrial revolutions as coming about as a result of mechanisation, electricity and IT.
"But it's the fourth industrial revolution where we are heading today. We are talking about cyber-physical systems and the joining of the virtual online world and the physical, which might be manufacturing for example," Vains told Manufacturers' Monthly.
Those involved describe production in an Industry 4.0 system as a marketplace in which machines offer their services and exchange information with products in real time.
The German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) is demonstrating how such a system can work in practice in a smart factory in Kaiserslautern, Germany, which was built in cooperation with 20 industrial and research partners, including Siemens.
This pilot facility uses soap bottles to show how products and manufacturing machines can communicate with one another.
Empty soap bottles have RFID tags attached to them, and these tags inform machines whether the bottles should be given a black or a white cap.
In other words, a product that is in the process of being manufactured carries a digital product memory with it from the very beginning and can communicate with its environment via radio signals.
The product thus becomes a cyber-physical system that enables the real world and the virtual world to merge.
According to Vains, the production environment described above will gradually become a reality.
"From a Siemens standpoint, with all our advanced technology and software, we believe we are at 3.8 and we want to take customers on the journey towards 4.0. However, there are certain things that still need to happen.
"Still things have to be defined and these things need to have standards to communicate to one another for example, with a set of rules.
"We are moving towards there, but realistically the whole implementation of this advanced technology could be 15 to 20 years away. It's in a 2030 space," Vains said.
Regarding the soap bottle pilot facility, in today's world: How does a machine know how many bottles need a white cap and how many require a black one? How does it know whether enough caps are available in the plant, or when they will be delivered? Are there enough people in the warehouse to take deliveries? Today, all of this information is contained in different systems.
For example, an ERP system is responsible for managing materials logistics, personnel planning, and cost calculations, while a manufacturing execution system (MES) controls production operations.
The problem is that the various formats, operating systems, and programming languages used in these different systems prevent the smooth and complete transfer of data from one system to another - precisely what's necessary to enable the merger of the virtual and the physical worlds.
Vains points out that Industry 4.0 does not belong to Siemens, or Germany. "It's just about the 4th Industrial Revolution and where the future of technology is going around the world.
"We have a lot of components that are working towards it, but from a US standpoint they are going down the advanced manufacturing and advanced automation path. The movement has several different names across the world, India and China have their own names for it.
"We are all doing different things, but it's the technology companies that are driving this and we are moving towards the common global goal; the future of industry," Vains said.
As part of the initiative, Siemens has announced $US100m funding to help technology based start up companies around the world, not just Germany.
"This is for young companies that are showing promising technology advances in the industrial space - manufacturing for example, and Australian companies could be recipients.
"In fact, the Australian Government should already be investing in our own local technology and innovation companies, but if companies fit the right requirements to drive this industrial revolution, then yes Australian companies will be open to that as well.
"Manufacturing is still a pillar of Australia's economy, whether we become the food bowl of Asia or whether we focus on other niche manufacturing areas.
"As a vendor we are not here to decide what is the right thing for Australia to manufacture, but we really believe Australia needs to embrace these manufacturing concepts and move with the US and Germany and the rest of the manufacturing world, otherwise we will be left behind and in a worse condition than where we are today.
"One of the steps towards Industry 4.0 is using energy more appropriately. There are so many opportunities for industrial energy efficiency programs that can help make us more competitive in Australia.
"One simple example was when Sunshine Sugar recently replaced its DC power drives with AC drives, which has led to huge energy savings for the company.
"While we believe we need government support to be successful in manufacturing, it must be the right government support, it needs to be a consultative approach, including education, manufacturers, associations etc," Vains said.
Alan Johnson is Manufacturers' Monthly's former editor. He has researched and written about all aspects of the Australian manufacturing sector for more than 25 years.