Digital connectivity: the invisible revolution

How new communication technologies enable the digital transformation

The “Internet of Things,” i.e., the connection of real objects with one another and with IT platforms, is a multifaceted term with numerous applications ranging from intelligent refrigerator to app-controlled vacuum cleaning robot. The industrial applications of the “Industrial Internet of Things” (IIoT) are far less visible – but of marked importance for the future of industry. 

Although Henry Ford did not invent the concept of assembly line production, he manifested it with a famous quote: “You can get it in any color – as long as it is black!” Variants, special types, diversification – all these are things that disrupt the flow of production and inevitably drive up costs. Indeed, a tightly linked automation enables considerable economies of scale. 

New paradigms for the production

But automation and as many common parts as possible no longer suffice today. The demand from customers in the consumer and industrial segments has become much more specialized. There are two main reasons for this: On the one hand, manufacturers are trying to develop a competitive edge by means of a broadly differentiated range. In Germany for instance, approximately 15,000 different vehicle types and variants were registered in 2019. On the other hand, commercial customers themselves are subject to enormous competitive pressure and thus cost pressure. Instead of “one for all” products, specialized components are often required that specifically perform a certain task, restrict or omit the remaining functions, and thus provide lower costs. For this reason, the range of industrial switches from Siemens alone includes more than 250 types – from small “Ethernet distributor” CSM12/24 for Logo! compact controller to high-performance Scalance XR500 with over 50 ports, support for various transmission media, and redundant design for hall networks of a factory.

 

So how can the manufacturing of the future be organized? The answer is a mixture of a multitude of different applications, innovative technologies, and new processes. Almost all solutions have one thing in common: They utilize data from the field level, gain new information through new sensors (in the broadest sense), or network information in real time. Horizontal and vertical communication between employees, IT systems, suppliers, and customers is the key to greater flexibility, productivity, and quality in Industry 4.0 manufacturing. 

Ordering without pushing a button

In practice, though, many changes are quite inconspicuous. Example: The supply of so-called C-parts, such as screws or bolts, to the Siemens plant in Karlsruhe. Würth Industrie Service takes care of supplying the factory – not according to planning cycles or past experience but controlled by the actual and current consumption. For this purpose, material boxes are equipped with Simatic RF600 RFID transponders. If a box becomes empty, workers simply place it on a special Kanban shelf. An RFID reader installed there captures the identification number of the box and transmits it to a server at Würth via Scalance network components from Siemens. By linking real-time data with the order information, Würth can redeliver by the next day – while the Kanban process in the factory remains unchanged. 

Radiolocation for container management

A second example are mobile material container that are used to transport products between the different production stages. In the course of the day, a barcode scanner has to be used many times to identify the right material. Sometimes the worker also has to go on a search, e.g., because the container was accidentally placed at the incorrect location or because the internal transport department has not yet delivered the container (the materials management system always books the picking and placement in the container, not the delivery). All of this costs valuable minutes and leaves production capacity unused.

 

The Simatic RTLS (real-time locating system) from Siemens provides relief here. The material container are equipped with an RTLS transponder, which are continuously and precisely located throughout the factory. The integration of the positioning data with the materials management system ensures that the location of each container can be retrieved at any time with just a few mouse clicks – if needed also on mobile devices such as the Simatic ITP1000 industrial tablet. A special highlight: The user interface elements integrated into the RTLS transponders – such as the display, buttons, and a wirelessly controllable LED. They enable an active communication with the employees on site, e.g., by flashing the LED on the searched for container until the worker acknowledges the search request by pressing a button and thus confirms that the material has been collected. In case of doubt, a look at the display shows what is currently in the container. 

Output counts – not the technology

The examples from the Karlsruhe factory impressively illustrate how industrial communication technologies enable innovative manufacturing concepts. It goes without saying that the reliability of the systems is crucial: failures and malfunctions quickly melt away the flexibility and cost advantages. For this reason, Siemens is investing heavily in the development and testing of its components, which are used in its own factory and by numerous satisfied industrial customers. One example is the so-called HALT (highly accelerated life test) chamber, in which every new product type and samples from the production are tested to their limits and beyond with regard to temperature and vibration – so that adequate reserves between measured values and the specification ensure a trouble-free operation. Because even in the new era of digital transformation, in IIoT, and in Industrie 4.0, an ancient paradigm of industry still applies: What comes out at the end is the only thing that matters.

by Markus Weinländer

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