Industry 4.0 is revolutionising production

More efficient, more flexible production – this is the promise of Industry 4.0. The networking of industrial production and information is in fact steadily moving forward, with companies and researchers from the Greater Zurich region at the forefront of this revolution.

From IT-powered automation to Industrie 4.0 (picture: www.phoenixcontact.com)

It is the next big industrial revolution: Industry 4.0. Related to it are concepts such as the Internet of Things and the Smart Factory. And they are preoccupying scientists and workplaces the world over. In a nutshell, Industry 4.0 is where conventional industrial production processes meet the latest developments in information technology. The potential offspring of this union are manifold, but they all promise greater flexibility and efficiency.

In this logic, production machines automatically warn when their individual parts soon reach the end of their working life. Semi-finished products autonomously move through the factory, knowing which production stations to skip until the next cut. Or using their home computers, consumers design their own shoes, which are then produced in a factory without the assistance of human hands. The technology and knowledge for these scenarios have been around for the past 20 or 30 years, but it is only now that the necessary computing power has finally reached a level that enables the upcoming fourth revolution of industrial production.

Products control their own production

“The product is traditionally separate from its production process,” says Konrad Wegener, director of the Institute of Machine Tools and Manufacturing at the ETH Zurich. “But innovations are now appearing at this interface. You could say that Industry 4.0 means that the products will themselves control their own production process using Internet technologies.” Imagine it like this: at the beginning of the process, the product – such as a drill or even a car – consists of a small chip, a control or something similar which contains the product data, such as blueprints. When the product moves from one machine to the next, it autonomously shares which parts are still needed or what type of processing is required. “If the specifications or equipment do not match, the machine can initiate a reconfiguration in which additional components are requested via the Internet,” explains Wegener.

Automation means efficiency

Swissmem, the Swiss association of mechanical and electrical engineering industries, regards the transition to Industry 4.0 as one of the most important challenges facing Swiss workplaces. “The biggest benefit that Industry 4.0 will offer Swiss industrial companies in the future will be greater cost-efficiency or productivity,” says Robert Rudolph, head of Education and Innovation at Swissmem. Industry 4.0 innovations invite companies of all sizes to redesign their production processes. “SMEs have the potential to build new Industry 4.0 processes from the ground up,” says Rudolph.

The Swiss industry is already now a great example of all that is possible. automation & electronics, Switzerland’s trade fair for industry and science, has grown rapidly in recent years and will be held in its enlarged version in Zurich in June 2015 for the first time ever. More than 150 exhibitors will present their solutions and discussion their visions of Industry 4.0, delivering a strong statement in favour of the Swiss workplace. Christian Rudin, head of Swiss Event Unit at Easyfairs, which organises the trade fair, says: “Swiss companies have been refining their production processes in this direction for quite some time, or rather developing solutions for it. And precisely in these months we’ve been seeing a positive dynamic.”

Industry 4.0 in practice

You don’t have to look for long in the Zurich region to find examples of cutting-edge automated production processes. For example, LCA Automation AG in Affoltern am Albis produces automated assembly lines for the automobile and transport industry and other sectors. Their Swiss machines are highly popular: more than 90 per cent of production is exported.

When it comes to the Internet of Things, innovative start-ups in and around Zurich are also at the forefront. Take for instance arviem AG from Baar, which developed an automated solution to monitor container freight goods: a small device equipped with various sensors is attached to the freight container by magnet. As the container is being shipped, the arviem device continually sends data in the form of graphs from the inside of the container, recording among others temperature, location, and even possible vibrations or condensation in the container. If a problem arises, the customer receives an alert via e-mail. A solution such as this allows costs to be optimised along the entire supply chain.

Quick steps to the Internet of Things

Swiss telecommunication provider Swisscom aspires to become one of the driving forces behind this development by starting with integration and basic structures for communications in this area. In April it will launch a pilot project in April that steps up the Internet of Things in the regions of Zurich and Geneva. A low power network (LPN) will enable machines to communicate with each other – M2M, or from machine to machine – over a mobile network system. “With LPN, we are making innumerable new M2M applications across all segments possible in one go,” says Jaap Vossen, head of M2M Marketing & Sales at Swisscom.

The Swisscom project will make it possible to build in a more cost-effective manner that which is already possible today. The solution for the Internet of Things was developed in a large part by the Swiss IBM Research Center in Rüschlikon and the Neuchâtel branch of Semtech. Switzerland is a global leader when it comes to innovations for the Internet of Things.

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