Corona is changing the industrial world

Klaus Helmrich, Member of the Managing Board of Siemens AG and CEO Digital Industries, on how digitalization and automation are helping make production future-proof.

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The digitalization and automation of industry is spreading. And this trend will gain further momentum now that digital and automated solutions have proven especially effective in the corona crisis. In the future, these technologies will help ensure that companies can respond far faster and more efficiently to crisis situations and changing market demands: They will be able to adapt their production quickly and flexibly to any need. The technologies needed for this are already available – such as with the Digital Enterprise from Siemens.

 

Virtually overnight, the coronavirus literally paralyzed public life, culture and economies worldwide and has massively impacted activities to this day. Events and trade fairs were cancelled, and industrial companies had to shut down production in many locations when the demand for various goods and services dried up or supply chains were disrupted. In other sectors, production had to be quickly ramped up to meet the enormous demand for urgently needed medical products and devices.

The effects of all these events will be with us for a long time to come, for many months if not years.  In this extraordinary situation, society, politics and business are all being called upon to overcome the pandemic and alleviate its unprecedented impact. In view of this enormous challenge, I have three specific questions:

  1. What exactly can discrete and process industries do to support the critical fight against the coronavirus?
  2. How can necessary industries continue working even in times of crisis?
  3. How can industrial companies restart their production following the lockdown and secure their success over the long term?

The answer to all three questions: digitalization and automation. The benefits they offer to the manufacturing industry are especially obvious in times like these: Automated and digitalized solutions are enabling technological innovations used specifically to alleviate the effects of the virus. They ensure that system-relevant industries can continue operating even under highly adverse conditions. And they make production processes so flexible, robust and efficient that companies can quickly and efficiently adjust their production to demand, both during the crisis and afterwards. They will be able to respond flexibly to new challenges at any time. Let me illustrate this with some specific examples.

Using technological innovations in the fight against the virus

Shortly after the extent and severity of the corona pandemic became obvious in March 2020, Siemens Digital Industries opened the Siemens Additive Manufacturing Network for hospitals and health organizations. This digital platform brings together suppliers and customers in the field of additive or 3D manufacturing.

 

Since we made this move, clinics, physicians and others have been able to send their urgent requests for spare parts for medical devices to 3D printing designers, helping them quickly and easily overcome bottlenecks in their supply chains. The network is available worldwide and covers the entire value chain – from simulating and checking designs to printing and service.

 

 

With the Siemens Additive Manufacturing Network for hospitals and health organizations Siemens brings together suppliers and customers in the field of 3D manufacturing

Highly innovative automation technologies, combined with digitalized product development, make it possible to quickly develop and deliver tailored solutions in exceptional medical situations like the current pandemic. In China, for example, our specialists for advanced manufacturing automation helped develop an intelligent disinfection robot in just one week using our NX development software and TIA Portal engineering tools. The robots can take over the disinfection of larger surfaces from humans in hospitals. 

When the crisis broke out, it presented a completely new situation not only for medical facilities and manufacturers of medical devices, but also for all those manufacturing companies whose employees suddenly had to work from home and no longer had access to many digital solutions or automation platforms.

 

Our solution to this challenge? We enable our customers to work with software solutions like our NX design and simulation software in home office. We provide the Mendix development platform free of charge so customers can quickly and easily develop apps without a programmer. It’s also possible to engineer a production plant from home – using the TIA Portal automation platform in the cloud. We can also monitor machines and entire systems online and, if needed, help with the repairs remotely. 

Maintaining necessary industrial production

During the corona pandemic, not only must the production of medical products and devices be maintained but supplies of essential foods and hygiene products have to be secured. System-relevant industries like food and pharmaceuticals must be able to deliver and, when needed, quickly ramp up production to meet soaring demand.

Other sectors, such as the automotive industry, had to shut down production for weeks when demand suddenly slumped. Or they needed to refit their production to provide urgently needed components for medical devices.

 

All this is possible only with highly flexible and efficient factories. They must not only be able to turn out special products in specific quantities on a production line, but also handle various series in different batch sizes. This can be done only when the entire value chain is fully automated and digitalized. The technologies for this are already available and offered, for example, in our Digital Enterprise portfolio. With the help of simulation tools, products and production processes can first be designed and optimized virtually as a digital twin before actual production is set up and started.

Austrian food producer Spitz shows what this looks like in practice: In a single plant, the company produces over a million products in small batches on 30 different process lines – from mineral water to sandwich bread. At the push of a button, operators can switch from one product to another on a given production line. Raw materials and packaging for the selected product are called up fully automatically. Order data is linked directly to the ongoing process, and production and consumption data is automatically sent to the plant’s higher-level data system. Such a degree of flexibility would never be possible without advanced digitalization and automation.

 

In critical times like these, when service technicians aren’t available or can’t personally work on a customer’s site, many services can also be maintained thanks to digitalized and automated processes. The remote commissioning, maintenance and repairs of machines is now possible in a digitalized world. Our service engineers can remotely access a customer’s machine, for example, and feed it the same instructions they would when standing next to the console itself.

Responding flexibly and efficiently to ever new challenges

The ability to respond flexibly and efficiently to rapidly changing demand and new challenges will be equally if not even more important when the corona pandemic has been overcome. The demand for all kinds of goods will inevitably grow again. And factories will have to be able to ramp up their production quickly. At the same time, many companies will now be considering ways to diversify their supply chains in view of the risks posed by global trade and the desire to produce closer to their markets. They will then manufacture in smaller quantities at decentralized locations.

 

In order to meet these growing needs for flexibility, speed and productivity – and to achieve greater environmental efficiency – intelligent production is a must. And this, in turn, requires automation and digitalization. Coupled with cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence, edge and cloud computing, additive manufacturing or industrial 5G, they will enable the next step in flexibility – from product development to production. This combination of technologies will give industrial companies the tools they need to master all the demands and challenges of today and tomorrow – both during the corona crisis and well beyond.  

 

May 2020

 

Go to Klaus Helmrich's LinkedIn profile

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