The thinking factory

Illustration | Bosch Rexroth AG
Marginal Column

March 2013


In the future, products and machines armed with artificial intelligence will communicate with one another and with their production environment. The magic word: “Industry 4.0”.


The interlinkage of the digital and real worlds has long since become a fact of life. We use our smartphones to find out, in real time, whether trains or planes have been delayed. At home, we track parcel post packages with a few mouse clicks. This net-working of inanimate objects, people and information systems is preparing us for the “Internet of things”, even now a popular topic of discussion. An increase in interconnectedness will not only affect our personal lives. Information technology will also lead to lasting changes in industry. This “Fourth Industrial Revolution” will soon become reality. The experts are unanimous on that.

Illustration | Bosch Rexroth AG

The first harbingers of this change are being seen even now. One example is the expanding automation of production processes. Augmenting this trend in Industry 4.0 will be the development of intelligent monitoring and decision-making systems. The products are “aware” of their history, their current state, their target state, and various options for attaining that state. What’s more, they are linked with the company’s business processes. This transforms the product from a passive object into an active agent in manufacturing, one that can itself “decide” on how it is to be made.

Both the products and the machines will be able to communicate inside tomorrow’s factory and will monitor themselves. They will determine whether a fault is present and, using independent calculations, will determine when maintenance is required. These changes will make production and logistics more flexible, since information will no longer need to be processed just by a single central unit.

At present, it is primarily a question of creating the information technology base needed for Industry 4.0. To do so, experts are trying out a variety of methods intended to lend intelligence to the products being made. Two potential options are quick response (QR) codes and radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips. These communication paths are only one part of the socalled cyber-physical production system (CPPS). CPPS is a production network in which intelligent machines, warehousing systems, and operating resources exchange information autonomously and launch actions as appropriate.

No decision has been made on the software standards to be used for CPPS. Communication between machines and products requires entirely new communication protocols, since it is no longer a simple matter of transporting data from one entity to the next. New protocols will have to be able to describe machinery data so that is machine-readable. That will enable other machines and systems to take action, based on this information. Semantic technologies such as these are essential to guaranteeing the interoperability of the individual systems. Even today, CPPS is being tested in experimental factories.

In efforts to reduce complexity, researchers are designing modular production systems. Thus they can expand the factory bit by bit, adding individual components as needed. Another advantage is that faults can be located and rectified more easily. One factor is decisive for future economic success, especially in high-wage countries. Those nations must not just embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution. They must also contribute to shaping it.

The four industrial revolutions

First industrial revolution (end of the 18th century):

Introduction of mechanical manufacturing systems

Second industrial revolution (beginning of the 20th century):

Mass production incorporating division of labor and with the help of electrical energy

Third industrial revolution (since the mid-1970s):

Automation of production processes with the help of electronics and information technologies

Fourth industrial revolution:

Integrating Internet technologies into production processes and networking those processes