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Innovation of the future

Networked production: welcome to the factory of tomorrow

People working with machines. Machines talking to each other. At times, a factory networked with 5G can be controlled from home, with entire production chains running in a coordinated sequence as if by themselves. Let’s take a look at the future with Industry 4.0.

Every morning, when production manager Sabine Demel starts work, the machines are already operating at full tilt, turning out one drill head after another. Demel dons her virtual reality glasses and starts her inspection round through the big production hall. She very seldom enters the hall itself. Sometimes she’ll be sitting in her office at home. Other times, like today, she’ll be in her chair in the modernised office section right next to the hall. 

Using a drone, Demel takes a virtual flight through the passageways. She receives signals containing up-to-date data about the equipment and brings the data into focus with her eyes: number of revolutions, temperature, vibration frequency. If necessary, she shares the image with her on-site colleagues on a big screen, or with further employees at other sites in Germany and the rest of Europe. 

With 5G, work can feel like a video game 

Our fictitious example could well be a foretaste of the future of production in many industry sectors in Germany. The industrial sector in particular will be able to benefit massively from the opportunities provided by 5G. Initial pilot projects by German firms show the possibilities that will soon open up for scores of companies. The dialogue initiative “Deutschland spricht über 5G” (Germany talks about 5G) looks ahead and presents exciting glimpses of tomorrow’s industry. 

Virtual reality (VR) is an artificially constructed digital world. Users generally put on VR glasses and formally immerse themselves in another world. The projection is visible in 360 degrees – a bit like standing in the middle of a film and being able to look around you. Users can determine which segment of the presentation they wish to view by means of a simple head movement. Presentations can either be filmed using a corresponding 360-degree camera or generated on a computer. This is not just an exciting way to play video games: surgeons can use VR to explore the body prior to surgery without touching the patient. 

Augmented reality (AR) enhances the real world with virtual objects. It combines reality and digital representation. Here too, glasses can be used to experience this technology, though you can also use your own smartphone. Objects or information are superimposed on the viewing field – in other words, projected on to reality. This is helpful to people working in warehouses, for example. All they have to do is walk along rows of shelves with their glasses on and their viewing field shows them where to find the product they are looking for. 

As in the example of Sabine Demel, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will enrich the economy with the help of 5G. In particular, 5G is what will make it possible to use the two technologies with mobile applications. Anyone working with them will, in the future, be able to view a great deal of information or processes virtually – even operating these processes at the same time with the help of linked technology. Thus, a procedure quite similar to those found in video games is making its way into our everyday working lives. 

Using virtual reality, it is possible to travel virtually right to where the events that interest you are taking place. So management personnel like Sabine Demel are able, without leaving their place of work, to assist their teams even though members may be scattered throughout Germany. 

Intelligent machines finding work for themselves 

People aren’t the only ones who use the Internet. Machines do too, and the world of networked devices is known as the Internet of Things (IoT). Inside a plant, machines and people can exchange information in real time. At any time, employees can retrieve information or coordinate spur-of-the-moment changes while constantly coordinating with other sites or service providers to agree actions. Supply chains can be reviewed and perfected with just a click. 

Smart devices will communicate with each other too. This is how 5G is making autonomous production chains possible, with autonomous vehicles or drones taking over transport to networked production lines. All the devices in this “Internet of Things” scenario will be constantly learning by means of artificial intelligence as they go along. Human beings are expected to also be involved, primarily in a monitoring role but with the option of intervening to optimise procedures. Smart robots will in many places make up the heart of the production process. 

Transforming factories into flexible spaces 

Tomorrow’s production plants will be more flexible. Mobile machines will react to current instructions or circumstances. Models envisage that only the shell of the production site building will remain fixed. This will allow people – and above all, machines – greater freedom of action than ever before. The wasteful expense of long and rigid production lines will be replaced by small agile robots, allowing production processes to be quickly and easily adapted to new products. 

This type of customisable workspace is made possible by a wireless infrastructure. Devices are connected via the 5G network instead of kilometres of cables snaking every which way across the hall. The data traffic may still increase further, but 5G radio installations can transmit the same amount of data while requiring significantly less energy than 4G. One of the reasons for this is the technique known as beamforming. A 5G installation does not transmit equally in every direction. Rather, it delivers performance where users need it, thereby avoiding waste. The use of wireless machines to eliminate physical cabling can save additional costs while opening up completely new opportunities as regards how space might be used. 

All these possibilities are contributing to the ongoing optimisation of Germany as a centre of industry, with all its processes and supply chains. Companies will be able to keep an eye on delays and react instantly to spontaneous changes. Individual devices such as conveyor belts and robots will also be capable of communicating with each other. Artificial intelligence is especially good at analysing high data volumes and networking devices together, with a speed that far exceeds human capabilities. But in certain areas, humans remain ahead of machines and will, in all likelihood, remain so. That means that even in the future, human skills like creativity, teamwork, managerial experience and social skills will still be in demand. 

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