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Reflecting on the past hype of Industry 4.0

Author : Stefan Reuther, COPA-DATA

17 January 2024

When the German government published its policy paper on Industry 4.0 in 2013, there was a sense of excitement about the future at COPA-DATA as terms such as IIoT and Smart Factory were being hotly debated. In this article, Stefan Reuther of COPA-DATA reflects on the past hype surrounding Industry 4.0 and asks, ‘where could it all lead next?’.

From the mid-2010s onwards, Industry 4.0 took off and generated considerable hype in many manufacturing industries. Concepts such as IIoT and the Smart Factory were discussed intensely in many companies. 

Back then, these issues really gained momentum. Approaches such as modular automation or cyber-physical systems were not yet widespread. At that time, COPA-DATA was already very well positioned in this area. Many of the things that were in the papers back then, such as vertical integration, were already standard for us. Other topics such as artificial intelligence are only now coming to the forefront.

Industry 4.0 for all systems?

The hype and associated buzzwords can accelerate development by stimulating public discussion. In the 2010s, every system suddenly became an Industry 4.0 system. Suddenly everyone jumped on board. However, many companies are not even Industry 3.0-ready at present. The foundation for Industry 4.0 is missing in many places. 

Solutions, not slides

When COPA-DATA speaks to its international customers, new concepts such as Manufacturing-X are sometimes bandied about. But, we see only a limited usefulness for such buzzwords. People have heard enough of these new concepts, and no longer want to see colourful slide presentations. Everyone simply asks: How do I solve the issue? 

This is also COPA-DATA’s approach. Namely, to offer ready-made solution packages – from systems for simple photovoltaics with battery storage applications, to the automation integration layer. This makes it possible to convey your own expertise to business partners.

Weaknesses of the tech giants 

Big tech companies sometimes have had difficulty understanding the challenges and needs of customers in the field of industrial automation. The fact that they were unable to gain a foothold, or have done so only slowly, is because the automation market is comparatively small. Publicly-listed corporations have to show quick financial success in order to keep their investors happy. As a result, business areas that require staying power have a relatively difficult time of it. This is particularly true when the related technologies, for example Google IoT Core, are simply discontinued.

COPA-DATA is positioned differently. It only does industrial automation, and customers appreciate that about us – we have more in store than just buzzwords.

COPA-DATA has grown organically – without acquisitions, step by step, and based on a solid foundation. The applications need a certain level of robustness. Systems sometimes run for 20 years and must be maintained – and any attempt to build an industrial application from tossed-together, open-source components is doomed to failure.

However, large companies are often very agile on the user side, as we have seen after participating in several meetings at the World Economic Forum in Davos at the beginning of 2023. Technology from the Fourth Industrial Revolution is being used increasingly, with industrial facilities, value chains and business models being optimised for significant financial and operational return. 

The conventional manufacturer is not ready yet, especially when it comes to advanced manufacturing. Perhaps 20 percent of companies actually do this. The remainder use conventional automation, if anything at all. Yet, advanced manufacturing or smart manufacturing concepts can now be found in more and more systems. In this regard, COPA-DATA is already well prepared.

This is true in the area of sustainability, where one often finds different requirements between large and medium-sized companies. Only a few medium-sized companies currently prepare environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) reports. Larger companies have more capacity for this and are therefore better prepared, should this type of reporting become mandatory in the future. 

As part of Scope 3, an important pillar of the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol, corporations also want to include suppliers' CO2 consumption in their environmental balance. They pass on this pressure to their suppliers in the form of additional reporting. The key, in these cases, is to act quickly in order to maintain important customer relationships.

Expensive energy transition

Today, digitalisation projects are often linked to sustainability goals – or "the twin transition", to use another buzzword. Conventional monitoring applications must be able to record the data from smart meters, in order to bring transparency to energy consumption and correlate it with production output. Companies want to know how energy-efficient their production is. In the pursuit of Net Zero and in the wake of rising energy costs, the topic has become very important. Only optimal transparency can help to meet this challenge. To improve efficiency, customers have to measure consumption.

Scope 3

In addition to classic energy reduction goals, companies are also navigating both the circular economy and the aforementioned Scope 3. Both influence the systems of the future. 

Let’s use a mechanical engineering example. A company has rolled out a new machine every five years, whenever there was an important trade fair. Now it wants to keep machines in operation longer to reduce the lifetime CO2 footprint. To do this, it has to design the machines modularly and with interchangeable components – something that is already easy to do with a software platform like zenon.

Modular future

In the area of modularity, zenon provides an already very advanced solution offering for module type packaging (MTP); the topic is becoming increasingly established in the market. It will soon become more important, in order to make industrial equipment more durable and thus part of the circular economy. Manufacturers have to think in advance about how a machine comes back into the company. This happens of its own accord, not only because of the idea of sustainability, but because it can create competitive advantages. 

A proprietary brew

Another topic of Industry 4.0 is interoperability. OPC-UA has established itself as a standards and communications driver in some areas. On the other hand, we still see the tendency of large automation players to protect what’s theirs and brew their own (proprietary) solution, in order to lock out the competition.

Most of the big players still use their own protocols, although they could also use OPC-UA. This shows that many still want to protect themselves. However, I believe that, as it matures, MTP will increasingly end these practices.

This is another reason why COPA-DATA is delving further into the topic of open distributed control systems (Open DCS). 

Sharing data vs silo mindset

In proprietary systems from large providers, companies can be completely trapped. An existing, monolithic DCS system is difficult to replace; it has to be modernised again and again at a lot of cost, before it is ultimately driven to death. But, we have the chance to offer a very good alternative as soon as the next generation of systems comes along. For COPA-DATA, selling and installing proprietary systems is simply a thing of the past. These systems are out of date. Today, it’s about networking, communicating openly, moving away from silos and towards open data sharing.

The data foundation of digitalisation

What does the future of industrial automation look like? What course should today‘s companies chart to be prepared for the challenges ahead? The first important step – and a basic requirement for digitalisation in the coming years – is a solid data platform. If data is not properly recorded and contextualised, there is no need to think about Industry 4.0 or advanced manufacturing. It is also not necessary, in that case, to save all the data. This was promoted for a long time in the hope that one day “AI would do the rest”. 

Near future: self-configuring production

From the COPA-DATA CSO's perspective, the interaction of artificial intelligence and modular technologies could enable completely new application scenarios at all levels. This affects mechanics, on the one hand, and automation technology, on the other. It means that existing units can be flexibly exchanged and combined with one another. This will even go so far that systems know which different devices and assets are required for the production of a piece X, and they will autonomously find it and be able to bring it into position.

Production lines made of modular components enable extremely short and flexible changeover times – the goal of a batch size of one is getting closer and closer. The modular technology for this already exists. With the help of AI, dynamic arrangement will soon become a reality. 

If we think further here, AI components could configure production processes themselves and further optimise them. This is exactly the challenge faced by industry. Let’s use, as an example, an order from a specific country that would require a quick turnaround and switching to a different production system. Currently, it takes considerable manual effort to determine the free capacities in international factories. A future solution could take on this task independently, and report which assets are available at which locations and at what times. 

All of this is not just a dream of the future, but is already within reach. The technology is already there today, albeit not good enough to work at the push of a button. COPA-DATA is already discussing these approaches with our early-adopting customers. For example, we are working on a prototype in the area of fast-moving consumer goods in the F&B sector. 

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