INDUSTRY 4.0 Prof. Dr. Detlef Zühlke interview

The World is Changing: Connectivity is Key

Professor Detlef Zühlke is the spiritual father of the Smart Factory idea. He is the founder of SmartFactory-KL in Kaiserslautern, an influential showcase for smart factory technologies and the birthplace of the Industrie 4.0 paradigm.

“The biggest risk is to do nothing,” Professor Zühlke tells Industry 4.0 Magazine when we ask what the risks of Industry 4.0 are. “There will be no old world anymore. We will live in a connected world, so we all have to participate in all of this.”

Professor Zühlke has been working with smart factory technologies since studying Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Technical University at RWTH Aachen in the early 1980s and admits that many Industrie 4.0 ideas were talked about during the first wave of Computer Integrated Manufacturing in the 1980s.
At that time, he agrees, the technologies were not mature and the market wasn’t ready to talk about solutions. It took until 2002 before his ideas started to coalesce around a smart factory concept.


“I was touring Smart Homes in the US, and I thought ‘why not have a Smart Factory?’ Now we have all the pieces of the puzzle,” explains Professor Zühlke. The technologies had matured, and huge advances in computing and networking were being made: the time was ripe for the birth of the Industrie 4.0 concept.

International Cooperation: the World View

While the German Government was quick to learn from the experimental facility in Kaiserslautern, the rest of Europe was slow to take up the ideas in play there. Instead, Professor Zühlke says the second nation to really interact with SmartFactory-KL was Korea. From around 2008, the Korean Government invested heavily in the concepts of Industrie 4.0 and, in the process, leapfrogged Japan as the leader of automation in Asia.

However, interest around the world is now catching up with the Smart Factory concept. Japan is recovering from its financial crisis and the aftermath of the tsunami and is now hot on Korea’s heels. And, in the last couple of years, China has recognised its business model of offering cheap labour to the world will no longer work and is currently pushing forward with Industrie 4.0 very deeply and very quickly.

Meanwhile, since 2012, the USA has been advancing the Industry 4.0 agenda through its national network for manufacturing innovation under the Manufacturing USA banner, using a similar model to Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes. Its focus is heavily on the supply chain and a “top down” approach as well as a much-needed investment in workforce education.

Here in Europe, the approach is less “top down”. The European Commission is now focused on the Industry 4. 0 concept with a “ground up” approach and millions of euros of investment over the last couple of years with more planned.

While much of Europe, including Britain, was late to the Industry 4.0 concept, many exciting projects are underway. Countries across the EU are cooperating, and this is being pushed forward by the Commission.

“We are very involved, participating in many working groups on a European level; trying to bring our European partners up to the network and be active as well,” explains Professor Zühlke. “We are now talking to an inner circle of partners to really cooperate – in the sense of having compatible test-beds for example.”

Professor Zühlke has praise for the educational networks here in the UK as well as programmes such as Digital Catapult and Innovate UK.

“You have the right research centres and research institutes,” he says, “But since the Brexit decision, our contacts and cooperation with British people has really slowed down and I am very sorry about this.”

“In the next year there will be a big programme of enabling existing centres around Europe to cooperate in a network of Digital Innovation Hubs. We will have to see with the British side how this will work after Brexit.”

Engaging with SMEs

The UK’s research and university education combine with a well-educated factory workforce to place us in a good position to exploit Industry 4.0 technologies, but more work needs to be done across Europe to bring the same opportunities to small and medium-sized enterprises, especially in terms of education, says Professor Zühlke.

In Germany, this is being tackled by the government through the creation of 24 Competence Centres which will, between them, provide national coverage to support SMEs. SmartFactory-KL is involved in this national project and is thus also increasingly working with SMEs.

“The first step is always that you have to convince the management of a company of the need to be prepared for these changes,” advises Professor Zühlke. “If the management is not really convinced and pushing it forward, the rest of the company will not follow. We undertake a Readiness Check to identify low-hanging fruits. The first projects are very simple sometimes, but it means they can start with something.”
Typically, digitalising paperwork-heavy processes or improving tracking through RFID tags are an easy quick-win, but Professor Zühlke is keen to point out the process isn’t proscriptive.

“We will not directly give solutions; we want them to find the solution for themselves, so they develop their own solutions and are convinced of the solution. Once you have the big picture in the background, you can identify the small pieces you want to start with.”

Experience with a small initial project builds confidence and momentum and demonstrates to employees and stakeholders that Industry 4.0 is important.
“You will go step-wise into the new world,” says Professor Zühlke. “We will guide them on the way to create projects that are a little bit bigger and finally to build up their own puzzle of the things that they need to be very active in this new world. We have very good examples here with medium-sized companies of how effective this approach is. Today, they are very happy they started with some pieces of the bigger puzzle and they have a much clearer view of what is coming in the future.”

Game-Changing Technologies
The test-bed model used in SmartFactory-KL is another key element for successful, practical collaboration. It is constantly evolving to take in new ideas and technologies.

Recently, the one long production line was broken into three smaller lines to explore the role of robotics in enabling greater agility. An autonomous robot now runs between the line sections to deliver parts – offering opportunities to explore mobility, location-based systems and machine vision.

“We have to identify these game changing technologies,” calls Professor Zühlke, “and deeply work on them so they can be used very successfully.”

Game Changing Technologies- What are the most exciting emerging technologies?

• Fifth Generation Mobile Networks
“5G will be a game changer for industry again. We will have the opportunity to have microcells in the machines in our factories and this will give us completely new opportunities for setting up the automated and highly flexible systems that are needed.”
• Additive Manufacturing
“For me, 3D Printing is really the only disruptive technology. Whereas many of the other technologies of Industrie 4.0 are following a more evolutionary path, 3D Printing can really disrupt what we do today.”
• Internationally Accepted Standards

“There is a real need for collaboration to create “plug and play” solutions.”

As well as demonstrating what is possible with the technologies, SmartFactory-KL performs a vital role in allowing companies throughout the supply chain to collaborate on new ideas and solutions.

“Today we have about six or seven products which you can already buy on the market,” enthuses Professor Zühlke. “The companies were only able to produce these solutions because they were operating and talking in a network with us. They can see what is missing to set up such a demonstration line, for example, and they see the opportunities. I think this is a wonderful example of what you can achieve when you push people into cooperation: learning from each other, identifying what is needed in the future.”

It is through networks such as SmartFactory-KL that suppliers are working together to produce compatible products and also the standards required to create compatible products. Ultimately, a “plug and play” paradigm is desirable says Professor Zühlke.
“We already have this with computer parts today, so why not also with parts for industry?” he asks. However, he acknowledges that the theory doesn’t match exactly with the reality: “This is also why I am absolutely convinced we need international cooperation. Otherwise a country that is not participating will lose. As well as the exciting technologies and research, we have to recognise that there are different opinions emerging around the world right now that are about building fences around countries.”

Building Bridges, Not Fences

Disruptive technologies and the new expectations of consumers are bringing change to systems and international trade.

3D Printing technologies combined with sensors, information and communication technology will not only enable greater customisation of products, it means that we will be able to produce anywhere in the world.

“We can send over the data in microseconds,” says Professor Zühlke, “and produce on the other side of the world.”

However, he acknowledges this will require difficult conversations about standards, laws and intellectual property. Ultimately, he thinks this will lead to the creation of regional groupings of supply chains, rather than the global supply chain we have today.

“A customer sitting in front of his computer can order a part in a mouse click. But then he does not want to wait another six weeks until the part is delivered from production in China. So, in the end, we will have production closer to the customer and this will lead to more regional markets; there will be a European market, a North American market, and Asian market. And production will come closer to these customer markets again.

“Therefore, it may be that a fence, let’s say to China, will not have such a deep effect as it does today.”

These changes to world markets and trade give Professor Zühlke further concern over Britain’s decision to leave the EU. “If we are going to do more in regional markets, this will also be one of the deep questions Great Britain has to answer when it leaves the European market. Britain may find itself alone in the world market and I think that’s going to be a very bad development.”

It will be a particular challenge for SMEs since they will need to change their business model to operate in such agile markets.

“For the UK, the key question is whether you can participate in Europe-wide networks. Because the technologies being developed are network technologies – not only network in the technological sense, but also network in the cooperation sense. We will all need to work with partners in education, universities, and industry partners. Therefore, I think it would be much better to be part of the European Union to really participate in all of these things. I don’t know whether Great Britain can really withdraw from all of this. I think it is a big threat for all of us.”

It is clear that collaboration – internationally, across the supply chain, across disciplines, and between industry, government and education – has been key to the success of the Industrie 4.0 concept and much of what has been achieved at SmartFactory-KL.

It seems, at the moment, that we could all learn much from its example.





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