One of the best examples of smart industry I ever saw, was a Bosch factory producing injector systems for diesel engines. In this enormous facility, hundreds of machines were fully connected to a central data system. Big screens in the hallways detailed the status of every machine, the quality of the products, anything you’d want to know. Artificial intelligence was used to predict maintenance and prevent failures, optimize product quality and improve the design of the next factory.
The next day, our group of high-tech entrepreneurs from South Holland visited another German factory that produced medical appliances. With a paper trail as large as the factory itself and hardly any digitalization. How can we explain these huge differences in digitalization?
Well, for one, size matters. Given the number of expensive injector systems Bosch is producing, the ROI of digitalization is obvious. Also, Bosch can afford the investments needed. Moreover: if it wants smart systems developed, it can demand its suppliers to develop them.
This is different when your company name isn’t Bosch, but Boers & Co and you’re not a multinational but an SME from Schiedam. For its high-end metal machining, Boers & Co uses state-of-the-art as well as tried-and-tested machines of several suppliers. It’s by no means easy to get data out of these machines, if only because most machine suppliers appear to have little interest in IoT. Data formats are different per machine and a surprising number of essential data simply isn’t stored at all. Take, for instance, a CNC machine that doesn’t record which tool it’s using. Machine vibrations can easily be measured and can be very informative on tool status. But they’re useless when you don’t know which of the hundred components in the machine is actually causing these vibrations.
Like Boers & Co, many SMEs are working on aspects of digitalization. But to be honest: most SMEs aren’t. Few entrepreneurs have the vision, the understanding, the guts and the perseverance needed. Most SMEs cannot afford to build a brand new Industry 4.0 factory, as Bosch did. They have to take small steps, one by one, overcoming all kinds of hurdles at every turn.
The Dutch smart industry vision to becoming ‘the best connected supplier network of Europe’ is way out there. Currently, there are very few smart factories in the world. Obviously, connecting such smart factories to a supplier network can make that network even more efficient. However, a smart network without smart factories has no value.
Therefore, at SMITZH, the Smart Industry Hub for South Holland, we focus on helping SMEs with their first steps. Groups of companies work together to take these steps and learn from each other. SMITZH is now starting a new group focused on connecting machines to a data platform. Participants get guidance to link information with processes in their company. That’s a challenge in itself and the first step to becoming a smart factory.
There’s one other issue we need to cover if we’re ever to build a connected supplier network. The Bosch factory was a stand-alone facility. Its production process wasn’t connected to the outside world. Not a single connection. Obviously, that’s the best cybersecurity solution ever. But not really a helpful one in a connected supplier network. However, given the current cybersecurity awareness in many companies, or lack thereof, I do understand Bosch. It’s our job to raise that awareness and help SMEs with practical means to improve their standards. Any plan for a connected supplier network involving SMEs needs to solve both the connectivity and the cybersecurity issues.