Smart Factory: local production, controlled anywhere

March 2016

The answer to increasing variety, ever-smaller batch sizes and huge fluctuations in demand is the Smart Factory. But the Smart Factory is not only optimized for local manufacturing, it is also connected to an international network.

Robots and people working hand-in-hand, without a protective fence between them? Parts and workpiece carriers which communicate autonomously with the machine? – They’re already in use today. Workstations that identify the user via a Bluetooth tag and adjust themselves to the user’s personal settings? – They’re already being piloted, too. Three examples that show that the path to the factory of the future has already been tread. But future production and supplier networks will also be connected to an international network. So the Smart Factory will operate beyond the walls of the factory building.

Characteristic for the Smart Factory is the networking of all elements in the factory via Internet technologies, through which machines, people and products communicate. Decentralized intelligence thus becomes an additional sensitive control element for all processes in the factory. This can be thought of as follows: The workpiece is unambiguously identified by an integrated data carrier. The workstation then registers which processing steps are needed next and which components should be installed in what order. Since the workstation detects the current part, it guides the operator via pick-by-light and shows them what parts should be mounted next. Here, the necessary smart screwdriver, for example, is automatically set to the appropriate torque.

Thanks to digital communication, all parties at the factory receive the necessary current information. At a glance, they can detect the status of the orders and automatically receive alerts when faults or impending shortages occur. In the case of international production networks, this will also be possible across national borders. Production planners will thus be able to control locally influenced manufacturing processes globally.

Worldwide standards wanted

“Until that happens, we will have to overcome two challenges in particular”, explains Steffen Haack, member of the Bosch Rexroth Executive Board. “For one thing, the world must enforce open standards, on the other hand we have to continue working on the topic of data security.” Yet many of the necessary elements for the Smart Factory are already available. Sensors transmit the status of each station. Smart drives can be directly addressed. Suitable software combines and consolidates all data into an in-depth information base. Unfortunately, some of these components do not understand one another.

Applicable standards for interoperability to break down the language barrier are still lacking at the global level. Around the globe, however, the necessary norms are being worked on intensively. Solutions are in sight in the not-too-distant future. In terms of safety and security, numerous working groups are on the road in order to work out solutions for the required security in all areas. Last but not least, governmental bodies are dealing with the necessary legal framework.

Experts like Professor Detlef Zühlke still expect it to last a decade until the Smart Factory exists on a large scale. Not only because many open issues have yet to be settled. But also because retrofitting at manufacturing plants often only makes sense after six to ten years.

Until all of the questions are sufficiently answered, companies of all stripes and sorts from small to large can initiate the first steps and gain practical experience that will pay off on the road to the Smart Factory.