To benefit from Industry 4.0, start somewhere and start now
It’s a common pitfall for companies to delay piloting Industry 4.0 projects until proven applications for specific problems have been developed. Prof. Dr. Harald Peters, General Manager at VDEh-Betriebsforschungsinstitut, Germany’s central research institute for the steel industry, urges companies to start by first adopting a wider mindset.
According to Peters, companies shouldn’t wait for disruptive technologies to emerge before starting to build their own solutions. Forward-thinking organizations will gain a competitive edge by trying things out early on.
“When companies started applying new digital technologies to their operations some five to ten years ago, there wasn’t any talk of big data or deep learning,” recounts Peters.
According to him, what’s changed since the last decade is that due to the hype around Industry 4.0, organizations have now become more cautious.
The focus in the German Industry 4.0 approach has been on building smart factories in which computer-driven systems monitor physical processes, create a virtual copy of the physical world, and make decentralized decisions based on self-organization mechanisms. It seeks to build on Germany’s existing strengths, augmenting them with new IIoT possibilities such as strong customization of products through flexible production.
“The main factor in starting is having the right mindset and the right amount of imagination”
“Ten years ago, we focused on technological problems. These could have concerned, say, scheduling or quality, and solutions for these were sought after. Now, after all the buzz surrounding the IIoT, decision-making goes through the higher management level, and every idea is deliberated on thoroughly before any action is taken.” This move, he says, slows the process down.
“The main factor in starting is having the right mindset and the right amount of imagination to be able to realize ideas leading into Industry 4.0.”
Advice from an expert
Peters’ vast experience includes chairing the Integrated Intelligent Manufacturing working group of the European Steel Technology Platform (ESTEP), which brings together the European steel industry’s major stakeholders. From this privileged perspective, he is able to offer some key points that traditional steel manufacturers should bear in mind when considering investments in digital technology.
The first involves adopting a wider view – one that looks beyond today’s requirements. Companies, particularly those in the steel sector, need a strategy for the future on how to digitalize their production processes, says Peters. Having one will help them implement the right technologies. “Industry 4.0 is much more than digitalization,” he argues. “An essential part of the development process is that of selecting the most suitable examples to realize Industry 4.0 applications based on digitalized plants.”
Second, Peters emphasizes the importance of forming partnerships and pursuing collaborations. Knowledge of what manufacturers in other industries are doing as they move towards the factory of the future can be extremely beneficial in overcoming hurdles and finding the right solutions. In addition, he suggests discussing ideas with research institutes and universities. “Collaboration is really beneficial, as partners can exchange their ideas and best practices. You can learn and improve your thinking, and gain new ideas,” he continues.
The steel factory of the future and the circular economy
Looking beyond Industry 4.0, perhaps to the Digital Ecosystem of the 2030s, Peters offers a glimpse of what steel factories of the future might look like and how they might function. He believes that changes in the steel industry will be the result not only of technological innovations, but will also be brought about by policymakers’ decisions.
“What the steel industry will look like in 20 to 25 years depends completely on political decisions,” Peters points out. “But in any case, there will be a more fully formed circular economy in place by then, and companies will have to adjust to that.”
“Efforts have to be made, for example, to develop new technologies to produce high quality steels from scrap metals”
He says that the new economy will require companies to think of new ways to deal with scrap, as getting rid of surplus and waste will help the steel industry achieve a more circular economy. Peters notes that efforts have to be made, for example, to develop new technologies to produce high quality steels from scrap metals.
“And this isn’t enough. We also have to find ways to reduce energy consumption, or to recover energy used in high temperature processes and to use this recovered energy in other areas of steel production. Here Industry 4.0 can help to develop solutions to detect cause-and-effect relationships between energy consumption and process conditions, or to coordinate different activities of energy management in real time. This requires, for instance, the capacity to handle huge amounts of data and to extract the right information from this data at the right time,” Peters says.
Ultimately, with the added level of intelligence in the production process provided by Industry 4.0 technologies, all these efforts combined will have a huge effect on the industry, however it may look in the future. This demands that companies start somewhere, and start soon.
Prof. Dr. Harald Peters works as General Manager at VDEh-Betriebsforschungsinstitut GmbH. He is member of the European Steel Technology Platform (ESTEP) and is currently the chairman of the ESTEP Working Group, “Integrated Intelligent Manufacturing (I2M),” which deals with Industry 4.0 applications in the steel industry.