Digitization is a major driving force of our time, turning our world inside out. Smart and connected systems are increasingly pervading all types of applications. The internet of things (IoT) is already starting to affect environments of all kinds – homes, cities, travel, logistics, retail and medicine, to name just a few – and it will not stop at our factory gates, either.
According to a recent estimation by McKinsey, the potential economic impact of IoT applications in 2025 is between US$ 3.9 and $11.1 trillion, of which $1.2 to $3.7 trillion is allotted to IoT applications within the factory environment. Also known as smart manufacturing, or Industrie 4.0 in Germany, these are fully networked manufacturing ecosystems driven by the IoT.
In a future where all “factory objects” will be integrated into networks, traditional control hierarchy will be replaced by a decentralized self-organization of products, field devices and machines. Production processes have to become so flexible that even the smallest lot size can be produced cost-effectively and just in time to the customer’s individual demands. Customers are driving this development too, as they can design and order products at the click of a mouse. They can also expect their products to be delivered within a few days – or even hours – and don’t want to wait weeks for goods to travel from far regions of the world where labour costs are lower.
Despite this huge potential, the introduction of IoT technologies in the rather traditional domain of manufacturing will not happen abruptly: investment cycles are long, and robustness of processes and technologies outweigh the striving for innovation. Too many questions have to be answered first.
As IoT technologies penetrate ever more deeply into our factories, down to the smallest piece of equipment, technology providers and factory planners must find solutions to four main problems:
- How to assure the interoperability of systems
- How to guarantee real-time control and predictability, when thousands of devices communicate at the same time
- How to prevent disruptors, or competitors, taking control of highly networked production systems
- How to determine the benefit or return on investment in IoT technologies.
To compensate for technological uncertainty and financial risks, adequate pilot environments are needed. Here, smart manufacturing technologies and strategies can be implemented, evaluated and showcased for the first time. This is why almost every big IT or automation technology provider has built its own smart manufacturing lab, where it can test and demonstrate proprietary solutions. But they are missing one important point: smart manufacturing is a network paradigm affecting wide-ranging areas from automation to IT, from digital planning of a product to its recycling, and from smart sensors to business applications.
There is no single-solution provider that can cover all of these aspects at once. So, for holistic solutions to emerge, there has to be a network of technology providers joining forces and competences to develop compatible solution blocks that fit the future requirements of technology users.