March 2019

29 March 2019 EXECUTIVE VIEWPOINT n the world. Visitors to the Hannover Messe from 1-5 April will be able to watch a live stream and see our working factory in action for the first time. Cell-based production True to Industry 4.0, the Hochdorf facility has left conventional line-orientated mass production far behind. Instead, 12 fully- automated technology cells support the high-volume production of Sick’s NextGen photoelectric sensors, a product family with a high level of variety. Instead of a batch-driven production chain, the workflow is driven by customers’ “recipes” as each individual manufacturing order (MO) progresses through the facility to make best use of the workspace. We have built universal machines, each with several complementary technical processes or “services” on board. In each process cell, the required operations are selected as needed for the MO, whether this is a robot gluing operation, a vision camera inspection, or a housing assembly process. We also learned that using both automated and manual processes leads to the most efficient and economical level of automation for us. Our material flows are handled both by automated carts and by people, and we still use some manual as well as automated assembly processes. Industry 4.0 flattens conventional automation control hierarchies, and so at Hochdorf, this highly distributed processing is complemented with cloud- based data storage, all managed transparently via our own specially- developed production control software. As you might expect, we have implemented effective predictive maintenance, as well as having real-time responsiveness to any issues, achieving exceptionally high manufacturing availability. The system is super- responsive and can juggle customer priorities and track order progress closely. Challenging thinking But this is not what we learned most of all. When you divide your processes differently; when you can use a machine to do more than one thing; there is no single answer. This was not what people were used to. So, we often found ourselves having to convince our partners and suppliers that there was another way to do things. For many, Industry 4.0 will not be a start-from-scratch undertaking. Today, Sick customers can combine our sensors at the field level to achieve smart tasks and decentralised applications. These will be the more common, retrofit projects that will begin to challenge us every day to think according to new paradigms. We often talk about being “Industry 4.0-ready” and our theme for Hannover is realising “Industry 4.0 Now”. Actually, there is one sense in which, with Industry 4.0, you can never be fully ready – just because there is almost no limit to the possibilities it presents. n perceives a demand for it. However, such a huge undertaking generates significant engineering challenges, and some aspects of the project are predicated on technologies and solutions that do not yet exist. There has also been scepticism in some parts as to whether it can be realistically delivered at all, but, more importantly, whether the demand for it is actually there. It will be interesting to see whether Hyperloop lives up to its undoubted potential. Meanwhile in the UK, the British company Magway is rolling out a similar project, albeit one that provides a real solution to a real problem. Electromagnet technologies will whisk commercial goods along rails through underground pipes, taking capacity off the roads, and potentially representing a gamechanger for UK logistics. Because it would be moving goods rather than humans, the engineering challenges are far more surmountable, and because it uses existing technologies such as conventional HDPE pipe and linear synchronous motors, it is likely to be much more practical to deliver. Projects such as Magway are only possible thanks to the current state of technology, where miniaturisation, in particular, is able to deliver more power and intelligence in smaller spaces than ever before. Miniaturisation holds the key to unlocking the future of industry. Smaller, smarter, more efficient, more powerful and more robust components such as servodrives and motion controllers open up a an ever- widening sphere of potential applications. Meanwhile existing applications can be made lighter and more compact. Component manufacturers will continue to work to find ways to engineer smaller, smarter, more efficient devices, and this is an impressive achievement in itself. But taken in isolation, the smallest component does not itself solve any real- world problems. Magway’s component parts – its pipes, track and vehicles – are arguably not in themselves revolutionary at this point in time. What is revolutionary is bringing them together into a solution that solves a problem. Just like the ancient Greeks’ aeolipile eventually evolving into Parsons’ turbine, it is only when someone applies innovation to application that the true value of technology is realised. To that end, it is difficult to predict technology trends over the next year, let alone then next ten. Even today customers routinely surprise us with new applications using our products, from ultra-thin testing rigs for autonomous vehicle crash-testing, to ultra-agile dolly rigs for Hollywood film sets, to precision robotic tools for brain surgery. We can confidently predict, up to a point, that we will be able to fit more pixels on a screen, more processing power in a microchip, and more power in a servodrive. The potential of these developments in technology are limited only by the creativity of problem-solvers to find new, innovative ways in which to apply them. n