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ERP software in the „smart factory

Germany is one of the leading industrial nations worldwide and a market leader in many sectors of industry. But the competition never sleeps. Intensive international rivalry between European nations and rapidly growing emerging economies is constantly increasing pressure on German companies to improve their own competitiveness.

Digital age – where will Industry 4.0 take us?

Following mechanisation, electrification and informatisation of our companies and of society, we are now experiencing the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution – collectively termed Industry 4.0 – and our reflexes tend to respond to these structural changes with scepticism and conventional thinking patterns. Yet our odds will be poor should we try to improve our own competitive position whilst remaining on the sidelines!

Neither politics nor the economy will these days offer panaceas to so-called “disruptive innovation”, i.e. our response to fundamental changes to tried and tested rules of the game and the displacement of established technologies. The demand for entrepreneurial creativity and capability – i.e. not so much academic but rather practical approaches - is therefore stronger than ever here.

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For the first time, the public became intensively aware of the Industry 4.0 concept at the 2011 Hanover Fair. The German Federal government was and still remains the driving force behind this trail-blazing project. Study groups, research groups and promoters have since been convened with the objective of developing proposals for intensified informatisation among German companies. The focus is, among other, on intelligently linked machines, storage systems and operating resources among all the partners participating in the value chain. Everything will be interlinked, rendered transparent and controlled.

Smart factory as a model of the future

Sounds familiar somehow? We experienced all of this before with the so-called CIM architecture, back in the eighties. Not so, because the CIM – Computer-Integration-Manufacturing – concept was all about linking man and machine, solely focussing on manufacturing processes. This refers to man transmitting programming commands to machine, instructing the machine what to do next – nothing more and without any intelligence or dynamic influence by external factors.

Today and in the future, information via the Internet will be automatically exchanged worldwide and optimized in real time according to demand. This takes place throughout the entire process, from product selection by the customer, through ordering and production, to delivery to the customer. This process logic, based on cyber-physical systems, is also known as the "smart factory". The communication and interaction of people and machines will open up completely new potentials in the value chain of the future.

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Consistent and automated variant processes

Industry 4.0 for medium-sized companies

Apart from the prerequisites facing a company and the “smart factory” challenges described in terms of the initial situation already, the trend of customer influence on products produced or supplied by the company, combined with constantly smaller batches down to customised individual items and of shortening delivery times (key word assemble-to-order / make-to-order) will remain strong in Germany. eBay, Amazon or other mail order portals such as Mö are already influencing the end customer’s buying behaviour, thereby calling the tune of your company.

In principle, the business potential is enormous and even more pronounced if your company is able to keep pace, i.e. to produce numerous variants or even individual items flexibly, profitably and fast and ultimately to dynamically create business and engineering processes. Completely new forms of value creation will develop based on information transparency, optimal decision making processes (e.g. make or buy) and the integration of external resources across entire lean, self-organising and real time optimising processes, optimised also in terms of availability, resources and cost. Add to this the increasing flexibility and quality assurance aspects of engineering, planning, production, operational and logistics processes which optimal scenarios and standards will guarantee.

This means that there are no more rigid relationships and the singular view of the location is also completely omitted. It no longer matters whether you can produce or supply. The decisive factor is to know who can be integrated into the process, at what delivery, cost and deadline conditions and - very importantly - everything, including the most diverse "data rooms" in the entire process chain.

This is the most serious difference to the CIM architecture of the time. It is not man who tells a machine or a resource what to do, but external influencing factors change and regulate the processes in the entire value chain. This is also referred to as "working in the open" or the "Internet of things or people".

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Disciplines and the Internet of Things

Concrete spheres of activity will therefore be found especially in the fields of:

  • Standardisation and reference architectures: technical description of collaborative processes
  • Control of complex systems: explanatory models of complex products
  • Extensive broadband infrastructure: within Germany and the partner countries
  • System security: security from attack, protection of people at the production facilities, risk management
  • Work organisation and structuring: adequate qualifications of staff, work organisation
  • Legal framework conditions: data protection, liability issues, contracts, company agreements
  • Resource efficiency: raw material and energy consumption, environmental protection

smart factory - Vision & Reality

Now, at the latest, it is time to shed some light on the general status quo in companies. Every company has heard of Industry 4.0 and it is clear that they are already preparing themselves - mentally or conceptually - for Industry 4.0.

A closer look reveals that there is a lot of talk about this topic - which is quite positive - but the necessary "homework" has not yet been started strategically. In other words, Industry 4.0 has not yet been properly understood, has not yet really arrived in the companies - and this refers to the classic medium-sized companies and less to the corporate group. There is a great need for information in this regard, and further clarification is urgently needed for companies.

Within the framework of the above-mentioned fields of action, the consideration of corporate IT (infrastructures, cloud models, ERP software, production systems) and their integration with external architectures is indispensable and ultimately decisive for success.

Which hardware and database platforms are optimally used, which security architecture is implemented and which software solutions are used with which usage models. A cross-company "cloud" can serve as a promising basis and replace or at least modify classic licensing models (hybrid).

A look into the crystal ball

Industry 4.0 is a project for the future. If we regard Industry 4.0 as an evolutionary and sector-spanning platform, Germany has the potential of becoming the global driver for the provisioning and implementation of supporting instruments. Policies, research and the economy must to this end create a united front of successful collaboration. Completely new markets and novel working environments are bound to develop. The synchronisation of all participants will be crucial to the success of each specific market.

The battle for personal data has already been lost to Google & Co. We have all willingly contributed here in one way or another through our information and user habits. Your whereabouts and movements can be tracked via your mobile phone. What you search for on the Internet is well-known, as are your purchases via Amazon & Co., the persons you phone and e-mail and, via your credit or bonus card, what you are buying and what your credit rating is.

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ERP software for Industry 4.0

Constant exchange of experience is important. You should therefore join working groups where genuine Industry 4.0 know-how can be shared, not where the focus will be on selling a supplier’s products. You will certainly find qualified contact persons in your industry association or other organisations in your field. Avoid, as a company, thinking in cycles of 2 to 3 years, but rather deliberate on what markets (and especially your target market) may look like in 10 to 15 years.

Also deliberate the impact digitalisation will have on us personally. Not only are new business or production models bound to change, but our entire working world will undergo drastic changes. Our familiar professional profiles and models of working time and remuneration will change. Entire professional sectors will disappear off the market and new ones will be created. Socio-economists are already developing schools of thought in this respect.

The route to Industry 4.0

Companies are bound to benefit from actively setting the proper course for this train into our future today already. It should not be Google & Co. telling you when to buy or sell or store or produce something and at what price – this is what you should be doing yourself.

Of course, software producers such as VLEXsoftware+consulting gmbh are also affected by this change. This is why we are strategising about this topic today already, based on our individual customer demands and in cooperation with leading representatives of industry. Based on state-of-the-art Web and Cloud technologies for the optimal support of collaborative processes, we have already negotiated part of this route based on our successful approach to product customisation and associated processes via state of the art „Variant management“.

The ERP system is destined in this respect to make significant contributions to “Industry 4.0 compliance”. In order to create sales and purchasing transparency via a consistently available set of automated rules, this system must administrate rule based product information. Data must also be available, interlinked (“Internet of Things”) and evaluated in real time.

You and VlexPlus ERP: Industry 4.0 for the future

The underlying architectures will be crucial to real time integration, interlinking XML with Web services, mobile access and final provisioning via a customer or partner interface. Companies must have the capacity to design their products and processes in-house within the framework of technical parameters and automate the production path.

Information must be centrally aggregated even for batch size 1, to be optimised within the system, to enable strategic purchasing and allow partners, suppliers and customers to access the requisite information online and bi-directionally. In manufacturing, on the other hand, job information towards optimal resource utilisation will be available for release in early stages already and freight forwarders will already be planning their relevant trips from their logistics and operational vantage points. Customer will already have been notified of their delivery, allowing them to track order statuses online. Man will now be organising, steering and controlling all the processes.

It is likely that the greater part of our route to an Industry 4.0 partner still lies ahead. We look forward to travelling this road together with you, our customer. Times are certainly exciting!

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VlexPlus – Thomas Feike
Thomas Feike
+49 92 21 – 691 7744
+49 172 591 2434