German production plants were using IoT – back in 2005
German production plants were using IoT – back in 2005

German production plants were using IoT – back in 2005

Germany is quietly emerging as the home of smart manufacturing through its Industrie 4.0 initiative. Here, one researcher explains how manufacturing plants are changing, and how they were using the Internet of Things (IoT) before the term even existed.

The German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) may not be a household name, but behind the scenes this organisation is changing the way that manufacturers create products.

The world’s largest non-for-profit group, DFKI is funded by the European Union and national governments and is investing in innovative commercial software technology which leverages Artificial Intelligence (AI). This sees the group explore a number of new and emerging technologies, from language technology and augmented reality (AR) to data mining.

The group has some considerable backing, both financially (its 2015 budget was reportedly €41 million, making it one of the largest research centres in the world) and from industry. Google – which is putting serious time and money into building out its artificial intelligence, deep learning and robotics capabilities – invested an unspecified amount in DFKI late last year.

Such attention should come as no surprise. DFKI describes itself as a company with ‘innovation engineering at its core’ and it continues to experiment with technologies that are arguably ahead of their time.

This was arguably the case with the Internet of Things (IoT), a technology concept which is already changing how manufacturers are operating today.

Speaking with Internet of Business recently, DFKI researcher of ‘humans and technology’ Fabian Quint described how the DFKI pioneered this idea of a ‘smart’ factory.

First trialled back in June 2005, Quint detailed how the Smart Factory KL technology concept – a key component of Germany’s 4th Industrial Revolution initiative (Industrie 4.0) – has progressed from an independent research project to the point where there are now 40 members in the public and private sector. Today, the likes of Siemens, Cisco, Huawei and many others are looking to commercialise smart factory technologies.

“The main target of the smart factory was to customise the products [that the production line made]. Our first demonstrator was of bottling factory production line using the Internet technologies allowing to customise products, like the colour of the soap, the used dispenser or customer-specific label.

“We had the idea that the product itself controlled its own production process.”

The Technology Initiative Smart Factory KL was described at the time as the “intelligent factory of the future.”

fabian-quintQuint is presenting a case study on ‘Building the factory of the future – from vision to reality’ at the Internet of Manufacturing. Click here for further details.

IoT in manufacturing equals intelligent factories

It was the idea that flexible and modifiable modules could connect together over the same network, regardless who they were made by. The aim was for simplicity and automation – components could carry out tasks autonomously and without unnecessary human intervention. The relevant data would be relayed back to the employee, and the modules themselves could be identified by RFID.

Quint says that the aim was for a decentralized control architecture where systems could continue regardless of what sensors and devices joined the network. It was, as he described, the simplicity of ‘plug and play’, improving the efficiency of the production line while making life easier for the staff that manned it.

It has been argued that this Smart Factory initiative was the Internet of Things (IoT) in its earliest form, and Quint believes that IoT today is shaping “how the production line will look in future”. This, in turn, is driving Industrie 4.0 beyond the hype.

“Industrie 4.0 has been hot for a long time. It’s been at that hype cycle stage,” says Quint.

“But companies now realise that this is definitely the direction we’re going in. Most realise they have to look at these aspects and be ready to change – even if they’re not ready right now. They now see the potential of Industrie 4.0.”

Also read: 5 reasons why manufacturers are embracing the Internet of Things