Science fiction writers describe them as intelligent robots. Industry 4.0 advocates call them autonomous cyber-physical systems. The former often depict them in the worst possible light, as part of their nightmarish visions and dystopian horror stories. From Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL to James Cameron’s T-800, these AI-powered mechanical monsters have a tendency to use their supernatural strength and intelligence to outwit, outrun and outgun humans. On the other hand, the tech sector tends to view them as the catalyst to exponential productivity growth–the key to automation utopia.
Friends or foes, the advanced robots are expected to come online eventually. The technological ingredients to breathe life into them are already in place, even if the alchemist’s formula is not yet perfect. The cyber-physical system’s role in Industry 4.0 is well defined. Some experts believe it’s time to also recalibrate the human’s role.
First, a Reality Check
Some of the building blocks for Industry 4.0 are spelled out in the paper titled “Design Principles for Industrie 4.0 Scenarios,” by Mario Hermann, Tobias Pentek and Boris Otto (Audi-Stiftungslehrstuhl Supply Net Order Management, Technische Universität Dortmund, 2015). They include:
• virtual copies of the physical world or digital plant models enriched with sensor data;
• assistance systems that support humans by making informed decisions and solving urgent problems on short notice; and
• cyber-physical systems that conduct a range of tasks that are unpleasant, too exhausting or unsafe for their human coworkers.
As a senior industry strategist for Autodesk, Diego Tamburini pays close attention to his clients’ Industry 4.0 initiatives. “Many manufacturers are already using numerically controlled manufacturing equipment (machining centers, 3D printers, robots, material handling systems) and some level of automation, but very few have reached the level of automation, autonomy, adaptability and reconfigurability envisioned by Industry 4.0. Most manufacturers are still in the process of digitizing their product development process–a necessary but not sufficient step toward Industry 4.0,” he says.
PTC is a company that champions the concept of digital twins. (For more on this, read “Driving Toward Digital Twins”). As virtual copies of physical products in the field equipped with sensors, digital twins pave the way for the intelligent cyber-physical systems envisioned by Industry 4.0 advocates.
“From what we see in the market, most manufacturing executives are not prioritizing autonomous cyber-physical systems as their next capital investment. Rather, they are looking to improve operational performance and flexibility through digital manufacturing, real-time intelligence and predictive analytics,” says Howard Heppelmann, divisional general manager for Manufacturing Solutions at PTC. “Our customers have proven consistently that there is a way to introduce IoT (Internet of Things) into the factory; connect to diverse and disparate assets, sensors and business systems; and deliver unprecedented business value in weeks.”
By offering a matchmaking portal that connects manufacturing service providers with designers, Dave Evans, CEO of San Francisco-based startup Fictiv, seeks to democratize manufacturing. “When you increase manufacturing efficiency with automation, you will inevitably replace some repetitive tasks previously performed by humans,” he says. “That said, manufacturing is a complex and creative process … We believe automation should augment the machine operator’s job rather than replace it and that the dynamic between automation systems and machine operators should be collaborative rather than discrete.”
The paradoxical nature of Industry 4.0 is, the very firms that stand to benefit the most from it–the long established manufacturing giants with the financial muscles to plan and execute the necessary automation initiatives–may also be hampered by the legacy systems they have accumulated over time.
“One of the main challenges is the diversity of the assets and the rigidity of the legacy manufacturing business systems,” says Heppelmann. “An IoT solution needs the ability to connect to diverse assets and data silos in the factory, and extend these data sources with modern technology, and do that without disrupting operations.”
“In order to fully realize the Industry 4.0 vision, the industry needs better multi-vendor, plug-and-play, equipment interoperability. That is, the ability to bring a piece of equipment into the production line and easily and quickly have it ‘talk’ to the other machines and software systems,” says Tamburini. “This also requires a commonly agreed semantic description of the services that a device offers and a partnership between hardware and software vendors.”
If we want to pay homage to the origin of the concept, Industry 4.0 should be spelled Industrie 4.0, as dubbed by the German government that first conceived it. The term began circulating after Hannover Messe 2011, where it was widely discussed. In the last five years, many of the technological pieces necessary to make Industry 4.0 a reality became much more robust.
“We have just reached a tipping point in artificial intelligence and machine learning, whereby these technologies are starting to have real-world applicability. This is particularly encouraging for the Industry 4.0 vision because these technologies will be essential in providing the autonomy, adaptability and ‘smarts’ envisioned in Industry 4.0,” notes Tamburini.
“Today’s IoT platform far exceeds what was possible 10 years ago,” says Heppelmann. “Operations technology/information technology convergence with IoT is now a reality we can enable in weeks within a factory. Building from that same foundation, new technology such as augmented reality, predictive analytics, and digital processes are also now part of a new reality we can bring to the factory in a similar timeframe.”
Making a factory “smart” also means putting it in the cloud, in a manner of speaking. IP (intellectual property) concerns might force many early smart factories to be in their own tightly controlled private clouds. “Cloud technologies are also helping make Industry 4.0 possible, particularly thanks to its processing power and storage capability–essential to consume, store and process the large amounts of data that an Industry 4.0 factory generates,” observes Tamburini.
Humans Becoming Obsolete?
When visiting clients, Zvi Feuer, Siemens PLM Software’s senior VP of Manufacturing Engineering Software, often has to tackle the dreaded question: Will automation and robotics replace humans? It comes up so often that he decided to address it publicly in a blog post, titled “Will Advanced Robotics and Industrial Automation Replace Employees?”
The Building Blocks of Industry 4.0
Cornelius Baur, a director in McKinsey & Company’s Munich office, calls Industry 4.0 “manufacturing’s next act.” According to him, Industry 4.0 is a transformation driven by “the astonishing rise in data volumes, computational power and connectivity, especially new low-power wide-area networks; the emergence of analytics and business-intelligence capabilities; new forms of human-machine interaction such as touch interfaces and augmented-reality systems; and improvements in transferring digital instructions to the physical world, such as advanced robotics and 3D printing.”
In “Design Principles for Industrie 4.0 Scenarios,” the authors list the followings as some of the characteristics of their vision:
• the ability of information systems to create a virtual copy of the physical world by enriching digital plant models with sensor data;
• the ability of assistance systems to support humans by aggregating and visualizing information comprehensibly for making informed decisions and solving urgent problems on short notice; and
• the ability of cyber physical systems to physically support humans by conducting a range of tasks that are unpleasant, too exhausting or unsafe for their human co-workers.
“Industrial automation and advanced robotics will … also generate opportunity for more–people with new skills–that will join to support the growth in production,” he adds.
“The downside of Industry 4.0 (or automation in general, for that matter) is not as much about jobs elimination but, rather, job shifts,” Tamburini observes. “So the problem is more about training and re-skilling the existing workforce than the availability of jobs.”
One of the skills that make people indispensable in the future may be cyber security. Sensor-equipped factory machines must communicate with one another or with their operators. That also makes them vulnerable to hackers with sinister goals. “The impact of a cyber-attack could be more insidious and devastating in a highly-automated and autonomous environment. A lot of damage can occur before humans realize that something is going on and are able to intervene to stop it,” Tamburini points out.
“There will be a shift in the jobs that are available as advanced robotics become more prevalent in manufacturing,” Feuer writes. “The fear of retraining is real to many employees. They fear any new jobs to support industrial automation will take over their existing jobs. This is why technical training and local community technical schools are so critical. The workforce needs to be more educated to accomplish this industrial automation.”
“While certain tasks may be replaced with automation, Industry 4.0 will also enable new types of jobs to be created as human operators are given more freedom to focus on innovation and creative problem solving,” says Fictiv’s Evans.
In the last decade, Siemens PLM Software and other technology suppliers began investing heavily in the development of simulation programs. Software like Tecnomatix from Siemens allows plant operators to simulate machine movements, worker activities and assembly line hiccups to predict and avoid ergonomic problems and safety risks. The skill to duplicate and analyze the operations of a real plant using such technologies in the digital world, for example, could put someone in the desired talent pool for companies pursuing automation.
In his blog post titled “Smart Factory: the Factory of the Future,” Feuer writes: “In the Smart Factory, people will work alongside Cooperative Robots (Cobots), which will have more sensors and become more human-aware. Robots with vision systems and AI will be able to perform autonomous tasks, move to new locations, replicate work done by humans and adapt to evolving situations, such as changes to the position of parts/products. Learning at the Smart Factory will be facilitated by the use of virtual reality devices. These devices will enable production employees to walk through the production lines, inside the production systems, in a virtual manner–well before they will be installed on the shop floor.”
The machines are ready to evolve; so must humans.