Germany develops 'smart factories' to keep an edge: Germany is building completely automated "smart factories" that require no human workers.
The next front in Germany's effort to keep up with the digital revolution lies in a factory in this sleepy industrial town.
At stake isn't what the Siemens AG plant produces--in this case, automated machines to be used in other industrial factories--but how its 1,000 manufacturing units communicate through the Web.
As a result, most units in this 100,000-plus square-foot factory are able to fetch and assemble components without further human input.
The Amberg plant is an early-stage example of a concerted effort by the German government, companies, universities and research institutions to develop fully automated, Internet-based "smart" factories.
Such factories would make products fully customizable while on the shop floor: An incomplete product on the assembly line would tell "the machine itself what services it needs" and the final product would immediately be put together, said Wolfgang Wahlster, a co-chairman of Industrie 4.0, as the collective project is known.
The initiative seeks to help German industrial manufacturing--the backbone of Europe's largest economy--keep its competitive edge against the labor-cost advantages of developing countries and a resurgence in U.S. manufacturing.
Underpinning the effort is the Internet of Things, where the Web meets real-world equipment. Google Inc. made a big push on the consumer front this year with its $3.2 billion purchase of Nest Labs Inc., which makes thermostats that can be remotely controlled by smartphones and other connected devices.
Full-fledged smart manufacturing is still in the pilot phase. But the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence has worked with German industrial companies to engineer some of the most advanced demonstrations in the field.
At the center's pilot smart factory in Kaiserslautern, chemicals giant BASF SE produced fully customized shampoos and liquid soaps. As a test order was placed online, radio identification tags attached to empty soap bottles on an assembly line simultaneously communicated to production machines what kind of soap, fragrance, bottle cap color, and labeling it required. Each bottle had the potential to be entirely different from the one next to it on the conveyor belt.
The experiment relied on a wireless network through which the machines and products did all the talking, with the only human input coming from the person placing the sample order.
Siemens's Amberg facility shows what is possible in an operational factory at this point. The plant, which builds automated machines for the factories of German industrial companies like BASF, Bayer AG, Daimler AG and BMW AG--and many of their rivals abroad--has been digitizing gradually for 25 years. Today it is about 75% on autopilot, with 1,150 employees mostly operating computers and monitoring the production process.
Designing a self-operating intelligent manufacturing system over an Internet network could still be a decade away. "We have the building blocks," said Siemens board member Siegfried Russwurm.
Besides Amberg, other German factories on the road to intelligent manufacturing include one operated by electronic motors producer Wittenstein AG, and Robert Bosch GmbH's nascent adaptive assembly line for hydraulic equipment, set to be operational in Homburg this fall.