Germany’s Challenge with Industrie 4.0

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Smart, Internet-connected systems in the Internet of Things (IoT) and technological advancements in areas like robotics is making manufacturing more automatic, digitized, intelligent, and networked.

Germany, a country where manufacturing represents about 24 percent of overall economic performance, realized the potential of connected devices early on. In 2011, the government launched its Industrie 4.0 initiative; a high-tech strategy which promotes the computerization of traditional industries and a shift from “centralized” to “decentralized” smart manufacturing.

“Industrie 4.0 will make production processes more flexible, and enable the development of highly customized products as well as the integration of new services into the value-creation process,” says Jerome Hull, industry expert at Germany Trade & Invest.

Following the creation of steam power, electric power, and the digital revolution, many experts are calling Industrie 4.0 the advent of the fourth industrial revolution—one that is led by the IoT.

In an Industrie 4.0 world, machines and systems form networks that operate autonomously, and manufacturers have transitioned production from digital processing to fully interconnected processes, products, and services.

For Germany, this manifests itself in the creation of “smart” factories. A smart factory would have direct communication between man, machines, and resources. Tools, machines, processes, and systems will be connected to the Internet in order to exchange information, and “smart” products would have knowledge within their systems to support the production process and documentation (when it was made, where it’s supposed to be delivered, etc.).

“In the future factory, each production stage will be connected via Internet, making the whole process more flexible and catering for relatively fast feedback from end-users,” states Deepak Achuthashankar, an industrial automation and process control analyst for Frost & Sullivan. “The product lifecycle will be even shorter and the connection between producers and customers will become stronger.”

Industrie 4.0 technologies have been heavily deployed in Germany’s energy sector, with smart grids allowing companies to shift from consumption-oriented generation to generation-optimized consumption, making it possible to optimally manage fluctuating renewable energy power generation and consumption. There have also been smart factory applications in the auto industry, with companies like Bosche Auto Parts using data, digitization, and the Internet to create a smoother production process.

The challenge of security and infrastructure

As with many IoT related initiatives, data security is a big concern with Industrie 4.0, and in Germany they have an added challenge: poor internet standards.

In regards to security, anytime there are universally connected devices sharing large amounts of data through the Internet or cloud-based technology, there is likely to be the potential for a security breach: a hacker could potentially paralyze a company’s logistics systems or get access to confidential customer orders and share them with competitors.

Manufacturers and users must be pro-active in continually assessing and updating security programs to ensure that data is secure. To help, researchers in places like the Hasso Platner Institut, a center for IT systems engineering, is having researchers help businesses deal with these security challenges and understand how to find and deal with weak spots.

“We have a lot to learn about security and privacy,” says Mostafa Akbari, an IoT enthusiast and the CEO and founder of bitstars, a virtual reality company. “We need to add it to new technologies that we are securing, while also raising awareness.”

Another major issue in implementing Industrie 4.0 is Germany’s often-slow Internet connections. Today, Germany only has about 75 percent of all of their Internet connections using fast broadband technology.

“We have a lot a very poor Internet standards, especially in Bavaria and Baden-Würtemburg. It’s a big problem for many manufacturers,” Akbari says. “At home they have just ISDN or very slow Internet; so many engineers don’t even know what possibilities there are in advanced manufacturing. And this is a disadvantage compared to the U.S., where people are more open and do things faster.”

Despite these challenges, Industrie 4.0 holds a lot of promise for the German economy. A recent study by Fraunhofer IAO and BITKOM states that Industrie 4.0 could generate growth of approximately 79 billion euros in six sectors in Germany—chemical engineering, automotive, mechanical engineering, IT and communication, electrical engineering, and agriculture—by 2025, and that the average additional gross value from this growth could be 1.7 percent per year.

In a keynote speech at this year’s Hannover Messe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear that German businesses not only have to hurry to continue capitalizing on Industrie 4.0, they also have to be more innovative.

Photo courtesy of Fraunhofer IP

Michelle Reis contributed to this article.

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