Europe’s “smart factories” seek fourth industrial revolution

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Last week, the world’s largest annual industrial convention, Hannover Messe, offered attendees a compelling glimpse into the technologies that will soon usher in the fourth industrial revolution. Coined “Industrie 4.0,” the manufacturing system of the near future will be composed of “smart factories” that rely on the integration of robotics, 3D design software and information and communications technologies that will digitize processes to boost efficiency and productivity. 

hannover-messe robotHeld at the Hanover fairground in HanoverGermany, Hannover Messe was started in 1947 to promote western Germany’s post WW2 economic revival. Since then, the annual event has come to symbolize the world’s latest industrial innovations, and recently, the computerized technologies that hope to kick start the fourth industrial revolution.

This year, the event was particularly notable given the direction leading manufacturing companies are hoping to take modern industrialization. At stake is the future of production following the first three industrial revolutions. With the invention of the steam engine, mass production and automatization, modern factories are now looking to harness the power of modern computing “to digitally connect with their supply chains through the entire life cycle of manufacturing.” Altthough 3D design software, robotics and “Big Data” are key elements to these “smart factories,” manufacturing leaders insist that humans will remain an integral part of the process. 

The machines will only deliver the big data. Changing the big data into smart data is still what the brain has to do, and for that you need people.Ralf Michael Franke, Siemens global head of factory automation

How “co-bots” like YuMi will succeed in realizing the fourth industrial revolution

The undisputed star of Hannover Messe and the vision of Industrie 4.0 is YuMi, a dual-armed robot developed by Swiss-based automation technology group ABB.

As explained in the video, YuMi and Industrie 4.0 envision a system of production that involves humans and robots working side by side. With its padded joints and limbs, multiple sensors, flexible hands and precision motion control, YuMi has been designed to ensure the maximum safety of the humans working alongside it. According to the company’s press release, “YuMi makes collaboration between humans and robots a reality. It is the result of years of research and development, and will change the way humans and robots interact. YuMi is an element of our Internet of Things, Services and People strategy creating an automated future together.”

Auf dem Weg zu Industrie 4.0: Vollautomatische Türenmontage am Siemens-Stand in HannoverAs exciting as all this sounds, critics and challenges remain. In a recent BITKOM survey, many companies expressed hesitation given the costs of adopting digitization and the technologies this fourth industrial revolution demands. And despite the claim that human workers will still be needed, there are plenty of critics who fear the displacement of low-skilled human labor is inevitable. Even Franke confides that “certainly not everybody is capable to be trained – in some cases you have to change people, and the chance for low educated people to find work in the future is getting dramatically lower, there is no doubt.”

On the other hand, Franke also explains that “when we introduced some automation 25 years ago, there were a lot of people hesitant about what was happening to the workforce. They all feared the German workforce would become unemployed in the future, and yet the opposite happened.”

Although co-bots and smart factories are still a work in progress, there is no doubt that the future of manufacturing is about to change in some very important and dramatic ways.

About Author

Kristian strives to enlighten and entertain readers. In addition to his teaching and editorial responsibilities, he is working on a science-fiction novel that promises not to include exoskeleton suits and anemic aliens floating in mysterious vats of green-tinted goop.

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