Dr Jan Stefan Michels, Head of Standards & Technology Development, Weidmüller

Dr Michels, Industry 4.0 and in particular the associated concrete solutions are key topics on everyone’s lips today. What’s Weidmüller’s take on the issue?
Essentially, it’s all about including digitalisation in the value chains of manufacturing companies. This involves a new way of networking the entire process chain, from the raw material suppliers right through to the end consumers. We are following a dual strategy here: Industry 4.0 plays a crucial role for us both as a provider and also as a user, with key elements being continuous networking and communication capabilities.

How is the dual strategy defined, and what are the challenges involved?
As a provider in the field of industrial automation, we already have products and services for Industry 4.0 on the market today. We will of course be gradually expanding upon our portfolio for our customer over the coming years, and setting up new business segments. And as a product user, we are making use of Industry 4.0 technologies in a few selected production and supply chain areas, and will also continue to develop this even further in the future. In order to do so, we need to be continually building on our technology competence, especially in the area of digitalisation.

From the perspective of Weidmüller, what are the opportunities presented by Industry 4.0?
Major trends such as demographic change, globalisation and in particular digitalisation are all changing the needs of the industry. Production needs to be even more flexible and efficient, and the manufacturing process needs to be safer. Our customers’ very specific expectations also mean that we need to make our products and services even more individual. Our work processes need to respond to these new challenges. Industry 4.0, and also the Internet of Things, give us a range of key technologies that we can use to better meet these requirements. The main drivers here are the huge leaps in development in the field of information and communication technology, but also technologies such as machine learning for the evaluation of production data and the optimisation of the corresponding processes. But it’s not just technology that’s crucial for success, but also the intelligent interplay between human and machine.

Is the human becoming less significant as a result of this process?
No. Automation has already been advancing for around 250 years now; it’s not just a modern phenomenon. We just have to think back to the introduction of mechanical production plants using steam and water power, or the introduction of electric drives. Industry 4.0 aims to support humans, with monotonous or strenuous tasks, for example. This may mean that individual work steps are no longer carried out, but will be replaced by new, high-quality tasks. Humans will continue to play an important role in the factory of the future. They will need to be intelligently networked with the machines, to monitor and control the machines’ work processes, and to recognise and tap into any optimisation potential. After all, it is only through the collaboration of human and machine that productivity and flexibility can actually be increased.

What specific objectives is Weidmüller pursuing as part of Industry 4.0?
On the one hand, we are working on the development of new business segments. We are currently working with the Industrial Analytics division to open up a new field of activity into which we will be investing more heavily in the future. We also need to drive forward our communication capabilities, the networking of existing products and the digitalisation of process and machine signals. By introducing these measures, we want to open up new markets as well as new customers, and to continue to improve our positioning and perception within the market. In meeting these objectives, it is important that we use an efficient value chain for our customers, in which the potential benefits of Industry 4.0 are implemented in the relevant steps.

An essential factor in ensuring successful Industry 4.0 production is digitalisation. What strategy is Weidmüller pursuing here?
As the first step, we started by further developing our IT systems and network infrastructure as a basis for Industry 4.0. It’s now a case of continuing to drive digitalisation forward in all business sectors. It is important to us that we prioritise our employees in relation to the benefits of digitalisation for our company. There are already numerous examples of areas in which we offer innovative solutions that would not have been possible without minor digital revolutions. Some of these include the Cloud-based systems, solutions for data recording, storage and processing and contactless data transmission, or in the area of Industrial Analytics, the analysis processes and algorithms for analysing process and machine statuses, detecting anomalies and therefore preventing malfunctions. These types of innovative systems not only make it possible to offer customers future-oriented solutions, but they also allow us to demonstrate to our employees that everything is possible with Industry 4.0. We are therefore realizing the potential of Industry 4.0 in real-life applications, while at the same time eliminating any concerns or reservations.

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