Can we imagine life without the smartphone today? Or working without the internet? These examples show us that our lives have changed radically over the last ten years. The internet and all its technologies have given us many new ways of communication – but have unfortunately illustrated the downside of this upheaval as well.
A new catchword is doing the rounds nowadays: “Industry 4.0”. What began with the coining of this term in 2011 has since become a new kind of hype. What is actually meant is a predicted fourth industrial revolution. Given this development, we must ask the question whether merely a new bubble is developing, which will quickly burst, or whether we are really witnessing the beginning of the predicted new age of industrial production.
The initial situation in Germany of “It’s sexy to be stingy!” has been the customer maxim of the last decade”. Products – particularly consumer products – had to be “cheaper, cheaper, cheaper!” and then even cheaper again. This just made people shop around for lower prices, even though wages became “cheaper” as well. So production was outsourced to China. But now there are signs of a fundamental change on the horizon. This change has several causes: China is no longer cheap, it takes too long for products to reach our markets and customers have other needs, namely individualisation and emotionalisation of products.
Customers are demanding newer and newer products at shorter and shorter intervals, and they have to be adapted to their personal wishes. This challenge is clearly being fulfilled by today’s smartphone market. Product life cycles of only six to nine months have now become the rule. And mobile telephones are only successful if they can be personalised with apps. A comparable development is currently taking place in the automotive industry. The range of models is becoming larger and larger, product life cycles are becoming shorter and shorter and customers are demanding ever better quality.
You might say the age of “It’s sexy to be stingy!” is over because now “We can afford it!” But to achieve that, we need new approaches in the production of goods. We are certainly not starting from scratch. Over the last ten years, we have adapted the construction and planning stages to these altered frame conditions through the enormous performance-increases in CAD technologies. A similar upheaval in actual production now lies ahead.
Germany is a high-technology country and earns a very large share of its gross national product with the manufacture of goods, but particularly with the required production equipment. If we do not manage to adapt our production plants considerably more rapidly to altered market requirements, we will be heading the same way as the manufacture of mobile telephones in the past decade: they will still be manufactured – but not in Germany. Only a few years ago, the international banking crisis brought the world’s economy to the edge of the abyss. Apparently, only Germany had the right recipe for finding its way out of the crisis. This is due not least to the fact that we not only kept our good engineers but also the ability to produce our own goods. So I am convinced that a strong manufacturing location will protect Germany against economic crises in future as well.
But times are getting harder. Markets, technologies and business models are changing at ever higher speeds. One essential driver for this is the internet, which makes markets transparent and usable across all national borders. “Order today – deliver tomorrow” is the new paradigm and to some extent, it is already reality.
So we seem to be facing a major upheaval – the fourth industrial revolution. The internet is already changing our daily lives. Computers are getting smaller and are being concealed in almost all technical devices. And what’s more, they are interconnecting with each other to form a single global network: the internet. If one takes this logic a step further, almost all items of daily life will become smart nodes in a worldwide network – the phenomenon also referred to as the internet of things. Moreover, it is entirely clear that this development will not stop at factory gates. The strongly electrical-technical and severely hierarchical world of factory automation will be transformed into smart factory networks, which will be characterised by progress in information and communications technology and hence by computing as well.
In order to keep up with the worldwide competition, what is needed is rapid adaptability and agility in production systems. This is made possible by progress in information and communications technology. We humans must therefore be able to plan, set up and operate this system environment increasingly rapidly. Only those countries that succeed in rapidly adapting the qualifications and vocational training of their populations will succeed on the world market.
Germany has good prerequisites for this. Internationally, we lead research into networked, embedded systems, semantic technologies and in designing complex cyber-physical systems. This is where the opportunity for our domestic industry lies in addressing these challenges of the world market through a technological quantum leap.
Prof. Dr.-Ing. Dr. h.c. Detlef Zühlke
Detlef Zühlke is Professor of the Institute for Production Automation (pak) at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern. He has headed the research area of Innovative Factory Systems (IFS) at the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) GmbH since 2009. Zühlke is the main initiator and executive board chairman of the SmartFactory KL e.V. technology initiative, the intelligent factory of the future, which was formed with well-known partners from industry and science in 2005.