It’s been called the Factory of the Future, the Smart Factory, the Industrial Internet, Industrie 4.0 and the 4th Industrial Revolution, among other names. Whatever you call it, everyone seems to agree that it’s coming soon, and it will change manufacturing as we know it.
In a nutshell, the 4th Industrial Revolution is a world where machines are intelligent, networked, and can communicate with each other and with humans. It is the ramifications of this connectivity that has the academic and analyst worlds excited.
What exactly will this new world look like? Everyone seems to have their own opinion. According Acatech, an academic advisory group out of Germany, there are more than 134 different interpretations of the Industrie 4.0 vision. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the revolution is in its early stages, driven by early adopters. How fast they are moving and in what direction will depend a lot on the infrastructure already in place—those with automated systems that stretch from enterprise planning, design and execution (e.g. design, plan and build) will be ahead of the curve.
The Tug of War over Direction
Another reason for confusion is that each of the “official” organizations trying to map the future of manufacturing is not in agreement, so are waging an economic battle over what happens next. Essentially, there are two major industry organizations attempting to lay the foundation. One is based in Germany, and the other is in the U.S. (There are several other groups and consortiums, but these two are the largest and most influential.)
Germany’s Industrie 4.0.
The German perspective, called Industrie 4.0, was founded in 2013 by the German government. It has become a cornerstone of that country’s high-tech strategy. Industrie 4.0 focuses on design principles and standards. More importantly, considerable attention has been placed on communicating a need for greater automation across these areas of manufacturing:
- Real-Time Capability
- Service Orientation
This focus should not be surprising, given the heavy emphasis of German automation companies that operate in this space. Germany also promotes the Leading-Edge Cluster Competition, which has awarded tens of millions of Euros to collaborative teams of companies and researchers working to advance the technologies needed to make Industrie 4.0 a reality. To date, the German effort has not produced concrete results. This has some supporters worried that Industrie 4.0 may be on the verge of failure.
The U.S.’s Industrial Internet Consortium.
The U.S approach, under the banner of the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), was formed in 2014 by a collaboration of companies that include AT&T, Cisco, GE, IBM and Intel. The IIC’s approach is built on three main pillars:
- Intelligent (connected) systems and devices
- Advanced Analytics (to deal with the huge amount of data coming from those connected systems)
- Knowledge power (of the people working with those systems and using those advanced analytics)
The emphasis on the human side of the equation (vs. the automation side) is considered by many to be an important advantage of the IIC. Another advantage is its focus on finding practical solutions through the creation of industry use cases and “testbeds” to drive innovation in real-world applications. Testbeds are a key part of the IIC effort, providing “a controlled experimentation platform, conforming to an IIC reference architecture, where solutions can be deployed and tested in an environment that resembles real-world conditions.”
In February of this year, Bosch, Cisco, National Instruments and TechMahindra formed the first testbed to come out of the IIC. This “Track and Trace” testbed has the goal of “managing handheld power tools in manufacturing and maintenance environments,” and will aim to track and trace the use of these tools to ensure their proper use, prevent their misuse and collect data on their usage and status.
Who will be the Winner?
For now, the momentum seems to be with the Industrial Internet Consortium, thanks to its early results. But, whichever way the battle turns out, everyone stands to gain in the end. Manufacturing enterprises will transition smoother into the digital age of the connected factory – and with this transformation will come virtual products, on-demand production, mobile real-time analytics, and all the rest of the exciting benefits promised by the Factory of the Future. How soon will it happen? Most experts predict major strides over the next five years.
The important questions that manufacturers should be asking today are: “What should I be doing to get ready? What will the platform requirements be, and how can I start building it?”
I’ll take a look at these questions in my next post.
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