Just as booksellers and the recording industry were completely disrupted by digitization, the manufacturing industry is experiencing the beginning a complete revamping, according to Klaus Heimrich, member of the managing board of Siemens, during the opening session of Siemens Automation Summit in Las Vegas last week.
Heimrich asserted that competition requires an overhaul of pervious practices in industry just as it has in consumer products. "Only innovation and the ability to disrupt can keep competitors at bay," said Heimrich. "Customers expect individualized products. If you don't give it to them, someone else will. This increases pressure on industrial enterprises."
While the concept of Industry 4.0 was christened in Germany, Heimrich pointed to the US as the place where digital advances will likely develop for industrial technology. "The United States plays a pivotal role in industrial digitation. In the US, you have leading companies with leading expertise," said Heimrich. "Digitalization is improving the quality of life, and now visualization is knocking on the door. This is a chance for companies in the US to be even more competitive than they are today."
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While skeptics have insisted that advanced technology carves away the population of plant labor, Heimrich believes advanced manufacturing will actually drive up employment numbers when you count in the world of industrial technology vendors. "With Industry 4.0, industry is coming back stronger," said Heimrich. "There are more jobs in an industry with connectivity. We believe we will provide an entire eco-system, not just for control systems, but also for communications, security, and industrial data-driven manufacturing."
Advances From the Design to the Customer
Heimrich sees the advances in smart manufacturing stretching all the way back to the design of the product itself. "The process of how the product is designed is changing completely," said Heimrich. "We start in a virtual world, designing the product and putting it in a simulated world where we build all of the components. It's a digital enterprise concept."
As well as digitizing the design process, Heimrich notes that the digital reach should extend beyond the manufacturing process, moving out to the end user by taking the end user's response to the product and bringing it back to the design team. "Customers want to interact with the producer of the product. Customization is playing a big role in helping the customer interact with the design process," said Heimrich. "It's a vertical integration of design and consumer use that also includes the supply chain. It's more than simple connectivity. It gives the customer the ability to interact with the design."
Digitization Improves Plant Efficiency
In Heimrich's view, manufacturing will become more efficient with digitization, and not just in the consumption of energy. "We have to think about how we can make our processes faster in time-to-market while also making them more efficient," said Heimrich. "We're seeing an increase in both flexibility and quality. The new efficiency is not only in the use of energy. It's also in how long it takes to design the product."
He pointed to software as having the largest potential to bringing innovation to industry. "The biggest advance in machine building is software. Software drives the capability of the company," said Heimrich. "It's not only with the automation. It's in the use of the right industry software along with automation. The next step is not just producing the same bottle of shampoo more efficiently, it's actually producing a new shampoo that the customer helps to create."
Heimrich believes digitization will also revamp plant maintenance "Take 3D visualization. You can go into the plant with visualization to train your maintenance guy. You do the test-and-check for integrating a new pump. If you see something is wrong, you can go back and improve it in your design," he said. "This produces a huge benefit in training and results in faster installation time."
Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 15 years, 12 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.