Understanding where people fit in Industry 4.0

Taking people into account has been key to Pilz's success, according to Susanne Kunschert (left) and Matthias Brinkman (right).

While Industry 4.0 may seem to encourage the replacement of people with machines, when it comes to safety, having an understanding of the importance of people is paramount. In an exclusive interview, Susanne Kunschert of Pilz speaks with Manufacturers’ Monthly.

The managing partner of automation technology firm Pilz, Susanne Kunschert, confesses, “I’m not so digital”.

Sitting in a meeting room of the company’s utilitarian yet homely Australian head office in Mulgrave, in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Kunschert goes on to describe her relationship to technology.

“I’m not on Facebook, or any social media, because I’m not that person. I still like to read paper books and read paper newspapers.”

Instead, Kunschert counters, “as a person, I need people, I need to talk”.

Employees of the global company, of more than 2,000 employees spread across more than 40 countries, also like to talk. The company has adopted a meeting strategy called “scrum”, where employees come together, write down issues on Post-It notes, and speak to each other, face-to-face. Originating in the company’s Ireland office, Kunschert is happy to see the strategy go global.

“For me, it’s just wonderful and it shows me that people need people,” said Kunschert.

The irony of this technique emerging from the office that has the most to do with Pilz’s software systems is not lost on Kunschert either. Moreover, this is a company that is invested in being at the forefront of automation technology and the digitalisation of the manufacturing industry.

“It’s really funny because we get so digital and [the] scrum brings the people back together again. On the one, hand you have all the digital processes and then, on the other hand, in scrum, you meet again, you talk to each other, you don’t write each other emails.”

This is not to say the company is not committed to its technology – far from it, according to Kunschert.

“The technical knowledge is really important and we love technical stuff, it’s in our genes.”

Passing this on to their customers is core to the Pilz ethos, and when customers purchase or consult with Pilz on their products, the expert training and advice comes as part of the package.

“It’s important for us to give that technical knowledge to the customer because you really want the customer to be knowledgeable. More than just selling you the product, we want them to really understand the background too.”

Making Industry 4.0 safe
Since its founding in 1948 by Hermann Pilz as a glass blowing company, Pilz has been looking towards how safety interacts with the latest industrial technology. While manufacturing glass apparatuses for medical technology, the company also produced mercury relays. When Hermann’s son Peter Pilz took over, the company developed its line of automation products, including a programmable logic controller (PLC). After Peter’s untimely death in 1975, his wife, Renate Pilz, took over the management of the company. Renate’s tenure, up until 2018, was characterised by the company’s global success as it expanded and introduced products that became familiar sights around the world, such as the Pilz E-STOP relay, PNOZ. This combination of innovative technology and a focus on safety became the company’s calling card.

Behind this success, however, was the company’s commitment to connect with each of its customers on an individual level, as Matthias Brinkmann, regional sales manager for Pilz’s Asia-Pacific operations, highlighted.

“First, you must impart an understanding of safety to the customer before you can implement the functional solution. We have to understand the applications and needs – where is the interaction between the worker and the machine? Based on this, we can come up with a product or a solution to help them. But the understanding of safety is the first priority.”

One area where Pilz is dedicated to providing a safe solution is the closer interaction between humans and machines – a field that proponents of Industry 4.0 have defined as central to the successful adoption of Industry 4.0 practices. Aware of the opportunities that this can present, Pilz has continued to innovate its product solutions to allow companies to adopt Industry 4.0 practices in a safe manner.

“Increased automation and digitalisation in many industries will lead to more efficiency,” said Kunschert.

Previously, automated processes driven by robotics in a production system were separated from humans by walls and screens to avoid any interaction, except for maintenance. Industry 4.0 and the development of cobots has brought humans and machines into contact and created new challenges for those committed to safety.

“Before, they were separated and now, bringing them together, you reach more efficiency,” said Kunschert.

“At the same time, the number of semi-autonomous operating applications will rise, and in future, advanced safe sensors and controls technologies will reduce the use of protective measures such as fences and will allow efficient interaction and collaboration between man and machine.”

Understanding that this change in the way that industrial production lines operate is the first step. Taking steps to ensure that collaboration between humans and machines can be safe is the next, and one that Pilz is actively developing.

“We have to ensure that no unintended usage or programming of the product can happen, that only authorised people that know what they are doing, who are following the requirements, can access the machine,” said Brinkmann. With collaborative robots bringing humans and robots closer, “security and safety are more and more merging together”, said Brinkmann.

While this trend towards closer interactions between humans and machines is occurring at a high level, each individual production line or product is highly specialised, and is partly the reason why Pilz staff work so closely with each of their customers.

“All the applications are different,” said Brinkmann. “The railway application is totally different from the injection moulding machinery and the hazards are different. Therefore, we talk about safety first and then we offer, often with our products, a solution for the customer.”

Increasingly, these solutions not only depend upon the red and yellow pieces of hardware that Pilz is recognised for, but by the software and systems that support each button or switch. Now a core part of the business, Kunschert describes how incorporating software and hardware was not an easy process, but one that her mother saw coming early on.

“My mother was always very future oriented and she realised 20 years ago that hardware is coming to an end and that we need software. At that time, there were not enough software developers, especially in Stuttgart, where we live. There is Bosch, Mercedes, and Porsche, all the students were already taken. My mother said, ‘We really need it’, so she looked for good software universities and there’s an excellent one in Cork, and she just opened up a subsidiary in Cork.

“In the beginning it was difficult. I think it took us seven years to really get the software team integrated with the hardware team, but because we started early, we’re there so we don’t need to do a big step now,” said Kunschert.

Bringing the German hardware team together with the Irish software team took negotiating different languages and different ways of working, but ultimately, it was that focus on people to people interactions that tied the two teams together. Today, that foresight has paid off, and Pilz is focussed on creating digital solutions where applicable, such as preventative maintenance. Combining hardware with software, Pilz has developed an app that runs off an industrial version of a Raspberry Pi, which is connected to a PLC. The app analyses the data from the machine and can send an alert if the machine is not functioning correctly.

The company recently celebrated being in Australia for 21 years.

A global solution
Transporting its products and philosophies from Europe to around the world, Pilz has seen the growth of safety practices globally. While Europe, with its common safety standards set by the EU, provides a unified landscape to work within, the multiplicity of standards across Asia requires a flexible approach.

“In Europe, the Machinery Directive sets the common standard, which is valid for all over Europe. This is not available in Asia, there’s no common standard, there are Japanese, Chinese, or Korean standards available,” said Brinkmann. “We see that safety is more and more adopted, yet the way is sometimes slightly different.”

With multiple offices across Asia and the Pacific, Pilz provides one model of how to conduct business practices across multiple jurisdictions. While Kunschert notes that some factories in the region have only just begun to adopt standard safety practices, others have implemented fully automated production process, with humans only involved in maintenance. Kunschert describes working in these varied locations as a balancing act, and highlights that the success of Pilz’s operations requires a focus on the fundamentals that connect across national borders.

“At Pilz, I can really feel like we’re all one, no matter where you would be. While the politicians want to build walls and they want to get out of the European Union, if the people and the companies stick together, then I hope it will work. It’s really important to work together with all these countries, and at Pilz, the people talk to each other. They like each other and they work with each other,” said Kunschert.

Part of what has kept the company expanding globally and able to deal with the changes that they have encountered, according to Kunschert, is the investment the company makes in research and development (R&D). With 20 per cent of sales profits invested in R&D, Pilz claims to be one of the most innovative companies in automation technology.

“If we were to stick with the safety relay PNOZ, I think we could close down the company in a couple of years. So, it’s good we invested that money in automation topics and robotics topics,” said Kunschert.

Describing how this fits with the company’s broader ethos, Kunschert borrows the term “spirit”, from the company’s motto “the spirit of safety”.

“Doing that research keeps the spirit of technology in the company. We have many spirits, not only the spirit of safety, the spirit of technology, the spirit of automation, and the spirit of people.”

The spirit of Pilz
While people and automation may not always go together, the future of humans within an industry that is heading towards a digital and robotic future is something that Kunschert is grappling with.

While undergoing its own transformation with the adoption of Industry 4.0 in its production facilities, Pilz has identified four core values that define the company and its approach to its employees. These are: mindfulness and thoroughness, honesty and openness, loyalty and reliability, and helpfulness and diligence. Unlike other company values however, these are embodied at Pilz, not inscribed.

“When you walk through our company, you will not find a poster with the values on it, because we deeply believe that if they’re on paper they stay on paper,” said Kunschert. “You have to live what you believe in.”

While in other cases, automation has led to the reduction in human work hours, with these values in mind, Kunschert, who shares management of the company with her brother, Thomas Pilz, recast what automation would mean in light of these values.

“I was saying to my brother, ‘let’s maintain a percentage of people in the company.’ I don’t know if this is romantic or not, but I want to draw a line for myself. After all, the machine needs to serve us, otherwise it would be absurd,” said Kunschert.

Within Pilz itself, the company is taking on automation, however hopes that in itemising the concept, it can ensure that the technology has a positive impact on those who work for the firm.

“You have to break down the big picture of automation into individual steps. Then we can all focus on these steps,” said Kunschert.

Ensuring that technology serves the people, Pilz and Kunschert are highlighting that safety needs much more than technology, it needs people.