CSEM 2016 Business Day in Zurich – World Café
Industry 4.0: the future of industry is now
Imagine a vacuum cleaner factory in Switzerland in the near future where every component of every machine is connected to an intelligent network that can predict component failure. These systems would then be part of an entire “smart factory” where the interconnected systems develop self-awareness and self-prediction, reducing downtime to virtually zero. Now connect these systems to distribution networks so that production is automatically realigned according to big data generated by warehouses. Which are in turn connected to the cash registers of millions of stores selling Swiss-made vacuum cleaners around the world.

This is a future where human error, and even the need for most human labor itself, might cease to exist.  And while, for some, this may appear to be an Orwellian nightmare of human obsolescence, it could, in fact, be a way of shifting the global workforce from mind-numbing tasks to more rewarding work and tip the balance of manufacturing competitiveness back in favor of post-industrial countries. This is why Industry 4.0 is the term on everyone’s lips.

CSEM holds the keys

When CSEM CEO Mario El-Khoury took to the stage to open the second half of CSEM’s 2016 Business Day, his message was clear: “Industry 4.0 represents a great opportunity for Switzerland. Rather than a threat, it’s a wonderful chance for our industries to become even more competitive. We need to maintain and reinforce the industrial production in our country.” Switzerland’s excellent communications infrastructure and highly qualified workforce make it extremely fertile soil for adopting and implementing many of the technologies that will enable the forthcoming revolution. And CSEM specifically—with its farsighted research into ultralow-energy integrated systems, miniature optical sensors, and other relevant fields—is poised to play a crucial role in this seismic shift toward extreme automation and efficiency in European industry. 

“Plug and produce”

Interoperable communication is one of the key design principles of Industry 4.0. In order for the vast diversity of machines and the products they produce to communicate efficiently between each other, IT infrastructures based on artificial intelligence are necessary. These systems, according to Philipp Schmid and Andreas Kunz, will also need advanced human–machine interfaces that allow for what they call “plug and produce” value chains—interchangeable components that seamlessly connect to the network but are also understood by the operators who need to intervene in the case of a serious technical failure.

The challenge is twofold: One aspect resides in creating these interfaces between man and machine, which allow for back end decisions made on the fly in a decentralized, automated manner while producing visually understandable feedback for those controlling the overall functioning of the factory. The other involves the reorientation of the manual worker so that worker can continue to be an integral part of the world economy in a meaningful sense—a challenge that Schmid and Kunz believe society will meet, as it always has in periods of transition.

Start somewhere, and start now

The task may seem unbearably daunting, and the experts do not know exactly where to start the transformation, but the consensus is clear: start now! Almost every facet of the production chain, from holding and production costs to logistics and maintenance, will benefit from adopting Industry 4.0 principles.  For those industries based in Switzerland, a country with few natural resources but fortunate in terms of its wealth and innovative spirit, the opportunity is even greater. And while no solutions are ready-made and a global transformation will require vision, the hard work will come down to identifying problems and finding Industry 4.0 solutions that are adapted to each industry, to each individual factory.

Luckily, in Switzerland, the groundwork has been done, especially with the development of ultra-low powered systems at CSEM. And those who manage to take their industry through the coming revolution will come out on the other side as those who seized the opportunities early enough to effect a positive transformation in their local and national economies, and in the global economy too.

Philipp Schmid, Head of Robotics & Automation at CSEM, and ETHZ professor Andreas Kunz gave a World Café workshop at the 2016 CSEM Business Day in Zurich on the theme of Industry 4.0. Here is a summary of the presentation and group work.

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