You mean apps instead of products?
Well, in a way; hardware alone does no longer make money in Industrie 4.0. Making things suitable for networking will soon be an affordable standard. Before long, the principle “Plug & Play“ will also apply to industrial goods: buy it, plug it in, operate it. This will result in interchangeability of things. Competitive advantages will then be decided in terms of service, which will be part of the delivery package.
Can you give us an example?
Producing a component with high engineering skills is no longer enough in Industrie 4.0. The customer expects that the component at least generates a regular status report, for example information about necessary repairs or the provision and documentation of energy use and operating data. Generating and utilizing data is the core business of the large IT companies, which are sooner or later turning into serious competitors in this market.
Engineering companies have to compete against someone like Google?
I consider this as quite realistic. In Korea, Samsung and Google have just developed some kind of mini operating system, which makes it possible to adapt basic devices to ever new applications or to supply data. It is about time that medium-size engineering companies now also look towards Silicon Valley.
Can you already foresee to which degree Industrie 4.0 will change the industry?
Training will certainly become an issue; so far we have set a shining example with our skilled workers, who have to be introduced to completely new competencies in the future. A mechanical engineer must now be able to handle software and utilize a wide variety of disciplines within the network. But most of all he must manufacture products that can also be seamlessly integrated into the Internet of Things at the customer’s.
How does one achieve such a Transformation?
The process always starts at the top, the management must motivate, allow free reign and scope for creativity, so that things can develop. Alongside this personal level we have to build platforms that help to pool new technologies and ideas from different companies.
And such a platform is being operated by the Technology Initiative SmartFactory KL e.V.
More than 45 companies have already signed up to the project, ranging from large US conglomerates to small or medium-size German companies. The key issue is to develop a factory based on the criteria of Industrie 4.0. Many different companies have supplied components and modules for the model plant, and now these components operate or communicate with and alongside units from other manufacturers. The concept of central control no longer exists; products and machines control themselves and just interact. This platform has been designed specifically for medium-size companies.
But the companies compete against each other. Is it realistic that medium-size companies jointly develop something that cannot be patented afterwards?
Some questions are certainly still open. We have noticed that medium-size companies are forming small alliances, mostly with firms that are not their competitors. They are looking for partners that complement their activities within the network. Working with the right people may soon be critical for gaining competitive advantage.
Do you regard Industrie 4.0 as a technology or as a theoretical Approach?
I regard it as a paradigm, a revolution that has to undergo an evolutionary process in day-to-day industrial production. The subject won’t turn the entire industry upside down overnight, but companies really have to start playing an active part in shaping this development, in order to prevent losing out.
Where is the German engineering industry within the worldwide competition?
You can’t compare this on a global scale; the German mittelstand, the small and mid-sized companies, is a unique phenomenon worldwide. Korea has two large conglomerates – Samsung and LG – and in North America the situation is again very different. For this reason, each country has to find its own solution, and within this context our prerequisites are quite good, for example due to our excellent vocational training system.
What is the right approach for Germany in your opinion?
We have to continue our strategy and actively shape future developments – this gets us well underway. So far we are quite ahead, but other nations catch up pretty quick!
Many employees are mainly worried about their jobs. Once things and services steer themselves – do we then still need skilled workers and engineers?
Of course we do. Industrie 4.0 will not destroy jobs. Things are changing faster and faster, and people are much better at adapting than machines. The perfect mix of technology and man will remain the key formula, also in the future. In addition, customers want their goods faster and faster, preferably right now; customer proximity will therefore become an increasingly vital factor. And all this speaks in favor of Germany remaining a major manufacturing nation.