Interview with
Professor Dr. Werner Bick

“Industrie 4.0 has arrived in German industry on a larger scale”

Mr. Bick, the Industrie 4.0 Award is always a review of the digital transformation of German industry. What is your conclusion after this year’s competition?

In any case, it has been shown that Industrie 4.0 is no longer occupied by just a few pioneers, but has become a mass phenomenon in the meantime. Across all industries and organizational sizes, there is hardly a company today that is not at least mentally concerned with the topic. So you can say: Industrie 4.0 has arrived in German industry on large scale.

At the same time, the solutions are becoming more and more mature and are moving away from pure data collection and information compression towards end-to-end integrated solutions that cover the entire business process. In the case of Siemens, the winner in the Smart Factory category, for example, an entire plant is already aligned to this principle and uses a large number of Industrie 4.0 elements in operations. This means that, overall, we are no longer in the trial stage, but are drawing more and more benefits from the results.

This is also the case with KAMAX Tools & Equipment, which was able to reduce throughput times many times over with its winning project. Does this mean that the solutions are now paying off more economically?

Basically, the solutions developed must provide added value, at least in the medium to long term. Usually this is costs, time and quality. There are definite examples – and KAMAX is a particularly spectacular one – where the measures pay off quickly. However, one must not overlook the reqired initial effort.

This means that at the end of the day everything you do must contribute to improv one or more of these criteria, otherwise the project will be discontinued. Industrie 4.0 projects are no longer carried out for their own sake or purely for the sake of experimentation.

Of course, the aim is also to make monetary effects measurable. But in many cases we are still a long way from being able to proceed strictly according to the criteria of a business plan or a net present value calculation, as we do in other areas.

A buzzword that appears in many projects of this year’s award is the topic of artificial intelligence. How do you assess its importance in the context of Industrie 4.0?

The more mature the solutions become, the more one automatically approaches the topics of prediction and autonomy. Of course, the topic of AI plays an important role here. However, this development should not be reduced to a single buzzword. Because at the end of the day, AI is just a tool. It makes it possible to convert data into patterns and to do something meaningful with these patterns. In the context of industrie 4.0 there are very interesting application possibilities for this, with which you can achieve great results. That’s why more and more companies are working with it. But one should not raise AI as a panacea or as a job killer. It is one of many tools which, if used properly, can bring a great benefit. But if you use it in the wrong place, it doesn’t help at all.

With the special award “Man & communication” this year ROI honours a company in which the integration of employees and communication of industrie 4.0 activities works particularly well. What is the significance of anchoring in the company for industrie 4.0?

Basically, there are two ways in which industrie 4.0 initiatives can emerge within a company. On the one hand, by the topic is brought into the company by the management as a central, strategic guideline. The other way goes from bottom up, by initiating solutions from the various departments, because the employees there recognize potential for their area. But it only works really well if you have both – committed employees who drive the topic from the bottom up and a management that demands and encourages it from above. This means that in the future, industrie 4.0 will only work if one have a clear target from above and a broad basis from below. However, this requires a broad communication, especially at the employee level, that explains the idea behind Industrie 4.0 solutions, the role of the employee and the knowledge that is shared across site boundaries.
And this is particularly evident at the BMW Group in Regensburg, the winner of the special award: there they have been involving employees in everything they do for years. For those responsible on site, it is absolutely clear that something like this can never be done by management alone, but that the broad base of employees must be involved right from the start.

What else can companies learn from this year’s winners?

Each of the award-winning projects has specific characteristics that companies from other sectors can use to develop their own Industrie 4.0 solutions: BMW, for example, has uniquely managed to make Industrie 4.0 a grassroots movement by addressing the issue in it value-added production system (WPS). This means that all tools have been developed from concrete requirements in the shop floor and are then reused there as part of the WPS tool set. At SIEMENS, in turn, it becomes clear how the early and above all consistent pursuit of the Industrie 4.0 approach achieves a particularly high impact. As a derivative for other companies this means:
It is possible to generate short-term results at one point or another. But if you do it right, you have to adjust to the topic of Industrie 4.0 on a longer journey. It is important to have a clear idea of defining a target perspective on which you can consistently stick and work. Only in this way, as Siemens has shown, can the full benefits of Industrie 4.0 be developed.

Finally, KAMAX Tools & Equipment is a clear signal to all medium-sized companies that shows that even companies of this size can handle complex Industry 4.0 projects. You do not necessarily have to be called Siemens or BMW, but as a well-managed medium-sized company, you can implement terrific solutions without investing millions. This ability to set up such a digitization project with limited resources makes it clear: Industrie 4.0 is not only an issue for the big corporations, but also for the small and medium-sized companies.

Thank you for the interview.