Shaping the “new normal” using digitalization, AI, and a dash of courage
What is the “new normal” for production? It will certainly be different to now – the coronavirus crisis means that previous measures to maximize efficiency must be supported by resilient and adaptive production systems. Digital transformation will make an important contribution.
Business is no longer usual
What will happen if a supplier can no longer supply goods due to a crisis? Or if transport routes are crippled and borders are closed? At this point it soon becomes clear that any system streamlined for maximum efficiency is fragile and easily damaged by external factors. Here, the coronavirus pandemic is just one example of a crisis that might occur. Other global challenges such as climate protection, water pollution, and the depletion of natural resources also expose the frailties of the old principle of “at lowest possible cost”. The good news is that we are not completely defenseless in the face of these crises – provided that we don’t now simply go back to “business as usual”. To respond better to these challenges in the future, we need to embrace a “new normal”. This means for example striking a better balance between efficiency (= minimizing costs) and effectiveness (= output).
Greater foresight is needed
The new situation as regards the effects of COVID-19 requires a great degree of adaptivity (ability to adapt to volatile markets). Adaptive companies adjust quickly to changing demand structures, one example being that due to coronavirus the demand for headsets and hair clippers exploded almost overnight. Only companies who adapt to this VUCA environment (Volatility – Uncertainty – Complexity – Ambiguity) are able to remain resilient, which is essential for the flexibility of the company. Resilience (the ability to withstand critical events) means in this context that a company can continue production despite supply chain problems because the associated transparency (availability of information and data where required) creates the necessary flexibility.
Fully utilize all possibilities
Adaptivity as a condition for resilience has its technological home in the digital transformation of industry. Ultimately, digitalization enables the control of complex systems and production processes in “live operation”, even in situations that have not yet been programmed in detail or where necessary information is unavailable. The interconnection of all digital systems and automatic synchronization with actual processes in the plant are therefore very important. Examples from the Siemens portfolio include RFID readers, which automatically acquire withdrawal quantities in an electronic Kanban system and notify the supplier’s ordering system or software systems such as the Simatic PCS Neo web-based process control system, which can be used to carry out numerous operating, maintenance and adjustment tasks remotely from a secure home office environment. Using this digital connectivity architecture, information acquired in real time can be forwarded to all relevant participants both within and outside the company, and can also be used to create a digital twin. The resulting Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) enables companies to react quickly to both faults and fluctuating demand.
In addition to the aforementioned technologies, which are already widely established, there are of course other new possibilities. The one that seems to offer the greatest potential is artificial intelligence (AI) as an addition to automation systems. At the Hannover Messe we demonstrated what an AI-powered robot can achieve without prior training: using just the data from the digital production order, it was able to mount a wide range of devices on a DIN rail.
Breaking new ground
Aside from this, Industrial 5G is ready to make its mark as the new communication standard; it will support distributed control algorithms for a large number of mobile robots and automatic guided vehicles. The future is exciting. This crisis has forced us to evaluate existing and established structures and to explore new paths and potential solutions. We must have the confidence to be open-minded when it comes to identifying and implementing new solutions. Who knows, perhaps there will soon be a “business blockchain” that provides a new distributed and resilient means of processing transactions in the supply chain.