The workshop of the future

Small and medium-sized enterprises have done a lot in terms of digitalisation in recent years. Most of the efforts are evolutionary in the direction of computerisation and automation (Industry 3.0). The focus is often on integration, i.e. in the continuous, process-oriented connection of different solutions. Previous paradigms remain: hierarchically structured, top down, centralised. There is little sign of revolution. But what could the workshop of the future look like? Thanks to new technologies and the massively increased performance of computers, things are possible today that were not possible before. That is new in economic history. Whether a saw is driven manually, with steam or electrically, it is basically always the same process, simply faster and more precise. The control is directive. One person directs the process. Complex systems are now available that we can no longer fully describe, although we have complete information about all the individual elements. Instead of directive control, there is a recombination of elements. The human being thus becomes more of a conductor or coordinator. The exact process of the guided task is not known to him beforehand. For example, it is possible for a machine to machine a workpiece without a human being having defined exactly which path the machine spindle has to follow and how many holes are necessary. The example described is comparatively simple. If new technologies such as robotics, autonomous transport systems and additive manufacturing are also networked, much more complex production environments are conceivable, whereby the complexity refers to the structure. Operation becomes simpler, more efficient, more flexible, ideally even autonomous.

Smart Factory as an enabler

These new possibilities are what is revolutionary. They change the infrastructure and the way of working. But first they change the market needs. Latently dormant customer wishes suddenly become realistic, even habitual, and develop into concrete expectations. The demands increase. Products become more individual and delivery times decrease, while the amount of information increases. Anything, anytime, anywhere. In English, we speak of Triple A: Available, Anywhere, Anytime. The Smart Factory is a consequence of this and at the same time an enabler. It is the vision of self-learning, self-controlling, fully automated production in batch size 1, and that in high quality, at a mass production price (mass customisation). Business model, customer experience, service offering, social and environmental sustainability of products and production are other key factors. Batch size 1 means that a product has been fully developed, costed, tested and the processes optimised. One piece of this product is then produced according to customer-specific parameters. While industry has to individualise mass production without sacrificing existing productivity or quality, handicraft businesses have other challenges. They need to develop customised products into low-cost, readily available quality products that can compete with industrial products. The challenges and scaling may be different, but the recipes are similar.

Technology controls itself

In the workshop of the future, machines, tools, products receive a unique identification and communicate via a data infrastructure, for example the Internet of Things. In this context, one speaks of cyber-physical systems (CPS), of digital twins, of smart products. Perhaps the components only consist of the unique identification. But other information may also be connected, for example status, measurement, process, movement or position data. Thanks to this data, it is now possible to set up production processes in a self-controlling way. The workpiece carries or continuously receives all the necessary information for the entire production and logistics process. Plants know their condition and can produce as needed and depending on the part. Necessary maintenance intervals and tool changes are predicted. Thanks to machine learning, the system is continuously becoming more stable and better. Highly flexible, fully automated production thus becomes at least conceivable. It may be that this vision is not yet a complete reality anywhere, but there are examples from other industries that are close. The path to such a workshop of the future will be gradual. The prerequisite is a good level of digital maturity at level 3.0, i.e. paperless and data-based production.

Paradigm shift

The workshop of the future means some paradigm shifts. Information and communication technology will become decentralised (CPS, cloud). The importance of large, central, hierarchically structured software is giving way to communicating apps (SaaS). Functions are becoming service-oriented (XaaS). The classic automation pyramid becomes a network in the cloud. Proprietary systems are being replaced by open standards. The generated data volumes are too large, too fast-moving or too weakly structured to be analysed with manual and conventional methods (Big Data). Since systems are not only complicated but complex, the totality of the available data is used for pattern recognition and correlation. The power of the systems allows analyses, forecasts and simulations in real time.

Forms of work are changing

It seems a logical consequence that such paradigm shifts also bring new forms of work. Routine activities are decreasing. Instead of the classic, order-related work preparation, engineering is increasingly taking over. Instead of a work plan with a parts list, there is a more abstract product development that is assembled and parameterised according to the customer’s specific needs, ideally even by the customer himself. The production data is then generated automatically. Complex projects can no longer be planned completely and are therefore handled with agile methods. Overall, it is to be expected that the way of working will develop in the direction of mobile, flexible, transparent, project-oriented, agile, lean and hierarchy-free. In the construction and timber industry, these changes seem particularly difficult, presumably because the construction processes are standardised in phases and the previous way of thinking has become deeply rooted. However, the change cannot really be stopped. The increasing intensity of competition will see to that.

New concepts offer opportunities

As the industry moves in the direction of the smart factory, it will bring individualised products in excellent quality and short delivery times at favourable prices. This is likely to put conventional workshops on the spot. But there are also opportunities, especially in the wood and construction industries. In addition to niche strategies, two other concepts seem obvious: individual products and decentralised production of standard products. Individual products require a great deal of expertise and exceptional customer orientation. The desired additional output is demanding. The pressure to at least partially compensate for the additional effort with an efficient infrastructure is likely to be great. In the decentralised production of standard products, cooperative skills are necessary. One has to be prepared to look at competitors as partners and to undertake joint developments or outsource developments to a partner. In return, development and marketing costs can be shared. For both concepts, efficient, largely automated production, a value network with low transaction costs and, depending on the product, a meaningful integration of BIM are imperative. This is not illusory. Many companies already rely on ERP, CAD, CNC and have a web presence. What is missing is a smart networking of these components.

More collaboration, more R & D

This is what the vision of the “workshop of the future” can offer. Unfortunately, little research has been done on this. The situation is quite different in industry. Germany alone has already invested several hundred million euros in research for the future initiative Industry 4.0. Added to this are the investments of industry itself. Leading companies in this field, such as Siemens and Bosch, each have around 400,000 employees. In Switzerland, the entire timber industry has around 80,000 employees, spread across 10,000 companies. These comparisons clearly show the need for action. More cooperation and more research and development are urgently needed.

About the research project

Triggered by the Forest & Wood 4.0 initiative, the Bern University of Applied Sciences is building the workshop of the future together with the Swiss Smart Factory and several business partners. In the process, implementation concepts of Industry 4.0 are being adapted for wood-processing SMEs. In addition to the creation of an exemplary digital production chain, the machining process of plate and rod-shaped semi-finished products is being modelled, the networking of individual components made possible and data consistency established. The aim is to set up a test and demonstration environment.

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AUTHOR: Rolf Baumann

Rolf Baumann is Professor of Business Informatics, heads the Institute for Digital Construction and Timber Industry IdBH, the Research & Development, Services, Continuing Education department and is a member of the Departmental Management of BFH Architecture, Wood and Construction. Previously, he gained diverse professional experience, including as a carpenter, wood engineer, entrepreneur and executive board member of a software company.

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