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From Germany to the World: Industry 4.0

April 10, 2015

The number of names used to describe what companies in the U.S. call the Industrial Internet and the German government calls Industry 4.0 may be a measure of the importance and potential of this new wave of technology.

IIoT by another name?  That’s the essence of Industry 4.0. It may be a measure of the importance and potential of the new wave of technology revolutionizing manufacturing that it has spawned so many initiatives. From Germany, a nation with a nearly unmatched reputation in manufacturing, comes Industry 4.0.

With a name first proposed only in 2011 at the Hanover Fair, plans and a report soon followed in 2013, leading eventually to formal adoption of the term by the German government. The concept behind the name divides the history of industry into four phases. Mechanization was the first (for example, the third was digitization – the initial impact of computing. The fourth (and, thus the name, Industry 4.0) involves bringing intelligence, connectivity and much broader computerization to manufacturing.

According to the April 2013 Recommendations for implementing the strategic initiative INDUSTRIE 4.0 prepared for the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research:

In the future, businesses will establish global networks that incorporate their machinery, warehousing systems and production facilities in the shape of Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS). In the manufacturing environment, these Cyber-Physical Systems comprise smart machines, storage systems and production facilities capable of autonomously exchanging information, triggering actions and controlling each other independently. This facilitates fundamental improvements to the industrial processes involved in manufacturing, engineering, material usage and supply chain and life cycle management.

Some of the key elements discussed in the context of Industry 4.0 include:

  • Ensuring interoperability.  Germany industry apparently has no interest in getting caught up in dueling standards, whether they are the result of differing national initiatives or competition between vendors or industry groups. So, there is a lot of focus in Germany on making sure everything plays well together.
  • Decentralization. This goal implies emphasizing greater autonomy and putting intelligence at the lowest practical level. Coordination must be ensured, but a rigid, top-down organization is seen as undesirable.
  • Do it in Real Time.  The latest crop of technology should permit massive data collection and analysis on the fly. The focus on real time is a natural corollary of decentralization.
  • Virtualization: a virtual copy of the Smart Factory which is created by linking sensor data (from monitoring physical processes) with virtual plant models and simulation models
  • Modularity and Flexibility.  To this self-explanatory goal should be added a desire for access to flexible services (such as software applications), all of which should enhance agility.

German companies such as Robert Bosch are hopeful that the initiative will enable the country’s strong foundation not only in manufacturing but also in manufacturing production equipment – along with its significant capabilities in information technology – to allow it to play an important role in shaping this new wave, including ensuring system interoperability.  Furthermore, from Chancellor Angela Merkel on down, the government and much of the private sector shares enthusiasm for Industry 4.0, though unions are more ambivalent.

So, will this vision become a reality?  At present, according to a recent article, there is considerable wrangling over who should “run the show” as well as how much about Industry 4.0 must be determined at the outset and how much can be developed along the way. Still, Germany and its EU partners have many good reasons for making it work – and they probably will.

Alan R. Earls is a Boston-based writer focused on technology, business, and manufacturing — a field where he spent the earliest part of his career. He has written for publications and websites as diverse as The Boston GlobeComputerworld and Modern Infrastructure as well as Industry, The Manufacturer, and Today's Machining World.