The mechanical and plant engineering industry is as a result of digitalization due to undergoing rapid changes. Despite the general situation being currently judged as stable, forecasts and future expectations of some German companies are often anything other than upbeat. Various factors can be attributed to this:

  • The lack of skilled workers has affected established machine builders. This factor has resulted in automation being driven forward. On the other hand, it has also led to a spike in personnel costs.
  • The variance and variety of parts are expanding whilst at the same time, batch sizes are shrinking. Framework orders are becoming completed less and less frequently. However, the administrative and processing efforts required in processing orders remain consistent and cost-intensive.
  • The weak economic outlook, as well as the current precarious political situation in the most target sales markets of China, the USA, and Great Britain have been a contributing factor towards this uncertainty.
  • In addition to this, the technological lead, which for a long time made German companies the market leaders, is threatening to shrink. For example, compared to China, the reasons for this can be found in the lengthy development times as well as a lack of regional and national strategies to ensure that value chains are used more appropriately.
  • Industry 4.0 and the replacement of existing technologies do not yet have a pivotal role on the executive floor at many companies and are therefore not deemed to be of significance. This is undoubtedly also because many management level decision-makers, especially in family-run companies, are not digital natives and therefore lack the necessary media skills and the willingness to take risks. This problem can be attributed to being a generational issue.

What can mechanical engineers do to set themselves apart from the global competition?

Companies can only position themselves optimally if they can offer more than others. Agility and flexibility have taken on an ever more critical role. If a competitor can provide the same technology in a shorter period and at a lower price, offering additional services can be a unique selling point on the market. Requirements are evolving from purely technology-oriented offerings towards on-demand services. Traditionally, these can be onsite commissioning, user training, maintenance, and delivery of spare parts. When it comes to committing to a manufacturer for long-term maintenance and repair, local companies have an advantage location wise.

What possibilities does digitization open up?

Industry 4.0 is opening up a multitude of new possibilities for users. Machines/plants are equipped with software that can store a large amount of machine data and makes it available for further processing. With the help of such data, digital concepts can be developed that can give the manufacturer more satisfied customers, a higher degree of security, and an image boost — worthwhile investments. The task of the future will be to incorporate this data with the maximum potential for use in business processes and to use it advantageously on the market. The networking of systems brings the greatest benefit if the machine manufacturers are prepared to cooperate with each other. Some companies are already forming networks to exchange know-how and experience, develop common standards for interfaces and solutions, and develop use cases with each other.

What data is available, and can it be used to come up with solutions?

The data initially consists of the machine’s delivery status in combination with the corresponding configuration and process documentation. During operation, the real-time data resulting from the continuous monitoring of the machine is added.

How can this data be used to generate an additional service for the customer combined with the best possible benefit for the manufacturer?

One essential aspect is central data storage. This saves time in troubleshooting and enables users to exchange faulty projects rapidly. To be able to recover projects from programming errors, they must be backed up continuously.

A simple solution is to process the data directly in the factory. The advantage of edge computing for processing in the cloud is data security. On-site, this would, however, require appropriate infrastructure and additional personnel to process a large amount of data.

By connecting the machines/systems to the Internet, the data can alternatively be stored in the cloud and then, for example, processed and evaluated at the company headquarters or directly at the manufacturer. The latter would be another additional service. The return flow of data from the operating machine to the manufacturer’s research department indicates a fast improvement and innovation cycle, thereby providing a technological advantage for the manufacturer in the fast-moving world. For the customer, the continuous improvement of machines that form the basis of production offers enormous potential to increase productivity.

If further developments are created as a result of this process, the customer can be provided with a software update. This could be provided, for example, in the form of a service pack, as an additional service.

Below are two practical examples that illustrate the importance of these aspects:

Example 1:

INITIAL SITUATION: An error has occurred that has caused the machine to come to a stop.

The first step for a technician? He or she would back up the data to be able to return to the old status at any time during troubleshooting. Thanks to the internet connection, this can be done online, even before the service technician arrives. This helps to reduce the time needed for the order and thus also the costs for the customers or the manufacturer, in the case of warranty.

Since the data is continuously backed up and integrated into a version management system, the status before the error occurred can be easily restored if the error cannot be rectified. When comparing the versions, it is possible to recognize which changes have been made since the manufacturer’s last program update. This allows both the error itself and any changes made by the customer to be identified more quickly.

Example 2:

INITIAL SITUATION: A standard component (e.g., program block, firmware, etc.) that is used in a wide range of machines/plants and has been changed. These optimizations can be used not only in the construction of new machines but also as updates for machines that have already been manufactured and put into operation.

If a regular data transfer of the already delivered machines to the manufacturer takes place, it is possible for the manufacturer to quickly recognize in which machines this module is being used in which version. As a service, the customer can then be offered a proactive update. In addition to additional turnover that such a service would generate, this promotes customer loyalty and represents an image gain for the manufacturer.

For future developments, it is also possible to determine whether and how quickly an update can be rolled out.

The digitalization of production makes it possible for a large part of the machine data to always be available in the current version. This improves the process from classic maintenance to Smart Maintenance. It is now possible to offer customers a range of additional services that help strengthen customer loyalty as well as ensure the competitiveness of plant and machine manufacturers.