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In theory it sounds great: fully networked production capable of detecting problems before they even arise. Self-learning processes, managed by computers. Downtimes approaching zero. Personalized products from batch size 1. The concept of the Smart Factory promises all that and more.

The reality is not quite so advanced. According to a study by the consulting firm Staufen, which surveyed roughly 180 German industrial firms, the topics of Industry 4.0 and Smart Factory are clearly on boardroom agendas. Yet only roughly 40 percent of the study respondents indicated that they are actually undertaking concrete measures. Almost half admitted to not yet having pursued the topic, or to currently being in the "Observe and Analyze" phase. Just seven percent were pursuing a comprehensive operative Industry 4.0 strategy .

Approach the topic with a plan

Thomas Rohrbach, Senior Partner at Staufen, doesn't necessarily view the results as negative: "Namely it means that a growing number of companies have grasped that Industry 4.0 isn't about plunking down a completely new smart factory overnight, but rather approaching the topic with a plan." As would be expected, only a precious few companies had truly digitized and networked their entire value chain.

What's undisputed is that machine automation will have a high priority in the future. Companies hoping to remain competitive will have to face up to the challenges of digitalization.

"We're talking constantly about the Internet of Things, autonomous driving, artificial intelligence, robotics and smart factories and man/machine communications. What we're forgetting in the process: Many of those technologies have already been around for 20 years. We're better off talking about how the existing ones can finally be networked right," Günther Schuh , a professor for Production Systems at the RWTH Aachen, recently declared at the German Logistics Congress hosted by the Bundesvereinigung Logistik – thus taking up the flag for one of the general challenges associated with the smart factory: the real crux is the crucial harmonization of the cross-company supply chain. There is a lack of standardized interfaces.

Revised thinking needed

This applies both for the interplay between manufacturing execution systems and the oversight level as well as between management and provision of data from the cloud. Industry 4.0 demands that companies revise their thinking: The factory of the future is a complex network in which the individual units communicate with one another without hierarchical classifications. It should be clear to all that this may be partially or completely impossible without a revision to the infrastructure.

A study entitled " Industry 4.0 Global Expert Survey 2015 " from management consultants McKinsey claims that in the next ten years, companies will be upgrading or replacing 40 to 50 percent of their machines to make the jump from classic to smart factories. The third industrial revolution — automation — for its part involved 80 to 90 percent. Refurbishing an entire pool of machines may not be necessary to achieve digitization. Beyond this, there is also the option of activating the Internet of Things using the existing infrastructure. Bosch for example is focused on retrofitting its older machines to be ready for the future. The manufacturer used an IoT gateway, a system comprised of sensors, software and networked industrial control units, to link one of its 129-year-old pedal-powered lathe to the internet. The sensors provide the pedal operator information on a monitor about whether the pedaling should be faster or slower to achieve the optimal rotational speed.

In the future, everything will be networked: suppliers, producers and customers. The question is thus not whether industry will take up digital possibilities, but rather how efficiently it will tap into them. For now it relies on a strong network between machine builders, electrical engineers and IT. The exhibitions on Digital Factory and Industrial Automation at HANNOVER MESSE will give visitors answers to the most urgent questions.