Digitization is not only advancing in our private lives. Industrial manufacturers are also experiencing the march of the machines. However, among the confusing mass of different buzzwords, it is often difficult for companies to recognize the practical benefits of Industry 4.0, big data, and the Internet of Things. Professor Christian Brecher, a director of the machine tool laboratory at the RWTH University Aachen and spokesman for the production technology cluster of excellence, is working on a project to examine the effects of digitization on production. “Perfect Welding - The Magazine.” sat down with him for an interview to shed some light on this subject.
When it comes to digitization, many terms are discussed – including Industry 4.0. How would you define this?
Digitization originally meant the conversion of analog values into digital formats. However, the term also describes the phenomenon of information technology becoming increasingly important in our everyday lives. Industry 4.0 specifically refers to the digitization of industrial production. The focus here is on achieving added value through the use of data.
So it’s all about data. What role does big data play?
Big data refers to data volumes that are too large or too complex for conventional processing methods. In production processes, for example, data is fast-moving, often lacks structure, and has complex cause-effect relationships. Collecting the data alone does not really bring any practical benefit. We therefore need algorithms that structure data in a targeted manner and break it down to the right level. Instead of big data, we need smart data, which enables companies to create added value.
To what extent has industrial digitization already been adopted by industry at large?
For manufacturers, many aspects are already a reality, such as data acquisition, process automation, digital communication, but also the use of cloud solutions and artificial intelligence. Whether or to what extent companies use such technologies depends on their sector, size, and strategy. Up to now, it has tended be isolated solutions for individual applications that have been used.
What will be the next steps in digitized production technology?
Firstly, a digital image of the production workflow needs to be created. To do this, new software has to process the data that is already being generated during production. This forms the basis for systematic learning: Independent of location, across industries, and across different disciplines. If the resulting knowledge is made widely available, everyone can use it to make better decisions and, in this way, we all benefit – we get an everbetter picture of reality and can thus make better decisions more quickly.
That sounds promising. Nevertheless, many companies are reluctant to devote the necessary resources to networked production. What opportunities do you see for companies investing in digital solutions?
Companies that invest in networking and digitization can optimize their operations. Whether the investment costs can then be recouped is not a question that can be definitively answered for all scenarios. But there are other opportunities: In the long term, digitized production can open up completely new business models. For this, it is particularly important that companies recognize and use their “data treasure” as the valuable resource that it is.
What are the other challenges facing companies that want to use digital solutions?
As with all change processes, it is important that employees, customers, and suppliers accept the new way of doing things. This works best when everyone recognizes the added value that the solution offers.
In other words, you are talking about acceptance. The mindset of society as a whole also plays an important role here. After all, the effects of digitization are repeatedly being discussed as something controversial. What is your view on this?
As with all technical innovations, digitization creates both risks and opportunities. We will only be able to assess the actual effects in the years to come. That is why a conscious and responsible approach to this social change is absolutely necessary. Many are concerned that there will be job cuts. I think that repetitive work processes, in particular, will be partially replaced by automated, data-driven solutions. But there will certainly be changes in every industry. That is why it is important for us to focus on the targeted training of employees. As an engineer and researcher, I am very positive about the digital future, especially in production technology. We just have to make good use of the opportunities it presents us.
“If the resulting knowledge is made widely available, everyone can use it to make better decisions and, this way, we all benefit.” CHRISTIAN BRECHER on the vision of a collective use of existing production data
The man behind the interview: Christian Brecher studied mechanical engineering at RWTH Aachen University, specializing in production engineering. During his doctorate, Brecher was a scientific consultant at Airbus (then EADS Germany). In 2001, he took over as head of R&D at D?rries Scharmann Technologie, a German machine tool manufacturer. In 2004, Brecher moved to RWTH Aachen and became a member of the board of directors of the machine tool laboratory and a member of the Frauenhofer Institute for Production Technology.