Last week we travelled to Munich’s ICM Centre once again to welcome thousands of technology experts to Fujitsu Forum 2017.
The agenda was packed with thought-provoking talks, demos and interactive sessions – all providing a huge amount of practical knowledge and advice that people can take back to their day jobs.
Given my role at Fujitsu, I was, of course, most excited to hear about what’s happening in the world of manufacturing and utilities.
And with reports of the industry slowing down, I was keen to learn how technology could help it thrive once again.
I’m pleased to say there was plenty to get excited about.
Here are some of my highlights…
1. Industry 4.0: we’re almost there
The phrase ‘Industry 4.0’ has become somewhat synonymous with digital transformation in any industry, but in manufacturing it’s particularly prevalent thanks to its potential ability to create ‘smart factories’ (more on those later).
I use the word ‘potential’ here because there is still some work to do before we can achieve this Industry 4.0 vision, as Fujitsu’s head of central Europe Rolf Werner explained in his keynote talk on day one.
Feel free to watch the full keynote below:
But we have made some significant progression already by using technology to create our own smart factory for our own manufacturing needs.
The fourth industrial revolution, as it’s otherwise known, is possible thanks to the unprecedented speed at which technology is now developing. And it has become essential because of the way customer expectations have evolved.
Those customers are now looking for individualised products and solutions, Rolf said. But they want them at mass-produced prices.
Two things make this seemingly impossible task achievable: the ability to turn data into valuable insights using AI, and the digital integration of value chains across entire supply chains and ecosystems.
Tools like 3D-printing, for example, allows products like shoes to be mass-produced in a completely customised and automated way and delivered in 48 hours – proof that personalisation does not have to come at a hefty price, if only we apply technology in the right way.
But apply it and embrace it we must, Rolf was keen to stress, putting paid to any fears that robots might one day take our jobs.
“Artificial and human intelligence perfectly complement each other without replacing each other.”
2. Connectivity is taking hold
I mentioned ‘smart factories’ above – let’s dig a little deeper into what that means.
Deloitte describes the smart factory as “a leap forward from traditional automation to a fully connected and flexible system – one that can use a constant stream of data from connected operations and production systems to learn and adapt to new demands.”
Certainly sounds appealing. But how do you actually get to that point? Thankfully there were plenty of people at Fujitsu Forum who could explain things further.
In a day-two talk on the subject, our chief evangelist for Industry 4.0 Christian Schregel said smart factories are made up of three elements:
- Efficient operations – reduce costs and create fast IT
- Cross-company ecosystems – support new smart technologies
- Smart business models – embrace new partner collaboration models
Our head of services and tools for factory operations, Frank Blaimberger, went on to describe some of the real-world smart factory use cases we’ve been building in our own business.
He talked about using eInk technology to substitute paper printing, enable dynamic information distribution and display content in a way that’s not possible on traditional print materials. More importantly he described how they made the business case work by enabling condition-based monitoring through the same device.
Then he went on to discuss smart buttons that enables the digital integration of legacy devices that would not previously have been connectable, creating seamless integration into existing data flows.
He also delved into dynamic test control, which uses data-fuelled insight to support the manual quality checking process.
Importantly, however, he was keen to stress that “having all this cool stuff in place” does not in itself create a smart factory.
To build a truly intelligent environment, you have to connect every part of your supply chain.
In doing so you can transform your entire manufacturing ecosystem using ‘cyber-physical systems’ – connecting everything from cybersecurity platforms to microservices.
And the key to making it work is this, according to Frank:
“The factory is acting like a customer. It’s requesting the same stuff a customer would.
“It has completely changed the philosophy of a factory.”
In terms of the method of delivery, Frank also indicated some significant changes in the status quo.
A co-creation approach, he said, is the only way to achieve a smart factory fit for the future. And to make that happen you have to completely rethink your level of openness with other companies.
“If a customer wants something specific we allow co-creation right on the shop floor,” he said.
“In the past, people would hesitate to open their doors and their books to partners. But this is the new way.
Watch our Facebook Live interview with Karl Verhulst, Head of Solutions and Consulting, Advanced Technology Division, Global Delivery Group at Fujitsu, about all things smart factories, including how you can capture and leverage existing data to improve operational processes and decision making:
Check out my Facebook Live interview on the topic of Industry 4.0 – what does it mean for Manufacturing? I covered points like how to collect the right information to deliver services using new ways and delivering operational efficiency & increased productivity.
3. Machine learning and AI are redefining what’s possible
It’s difficult to find an article about manufacturing these days that doesn’t mention artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning.
And there’s good reason for that: AI has the power to completely redefine what efficiency and productivity look like in this industry.
Worryingly, however, UK manufacturing has fallen behind in the race to harness AI. And failure to catch up could cost an estimated £151,000 to individual firms, according to research by Oneserve.
To stop this happening, the future has to be about humans and machines working in perfect harmony – not the former being replaced by the latter altogether.
Few things can illustrate that point better than the example Bjarne Rasmussen gave in the Hyperconnected World panel.
He talked about how Fujitsu has been working with Siemens to dramatically increase the efficiency of wind turbine blade production.
More specifically he was referring to the once-very lengthy process of quality-checking each and every blade.
Previously an engineer had to spend up to a full day meticulously checking a single blade using an ultrasound camera – a painstaking process that was prone to human error.
By applying machine learning, we developed a proof of concept where we could ‘train’ a robot to spot any potential abnormalities on the blades so that an engineer would only need to check the parts the robot flagged.
As you can imagine, this saved an enormous amount of time, making it possible to complete the task in just over an hour.
In a separate talk, product manager Gant Kinchin discussed this further, saying the desire to optimise every single element of the production line is what drove this innovation.
And by optimisation he doesn’t mean the replacement of manual human labour, but rather freeing people from those low-skill tasks to focus on more complex and fulfilling work.
Grant went on to say the one part of the production line that hasn’t been optimised historically is quality control, because it requires such a high level of accuracy and consistency – not to mention high people and training costs.
But with deep learning software you can now automate this part of the manufacturing process. It’s possible for a machine to actually replicate human judgement and learn from experience based on a relatively small amount of initial data, whereas previously you could only use pre-programmed rules.
— Reijo Sihvonen (@ReijoSihvonen) November 9, 2017
4. Wearable tech is literally saving lives
One area of manufacturing covered at Forum this year with a particularly emotional slant – and one I’m passionate about – was the use of wearables to improve worker safety.
Global product manager David Walker discussed some of the horrific events that could easily have been prevented with the right technology.
There was a story of one man in a utilities plant, for example, who drowned in a reservoir because it took workers four and a half hours to find him when he went missing.
Had the man been wearing a connected device, he could have been tracked immediately and potentially saved.
Another man fell in a trench at a building site and one of his colleagues filled it up not knowing he was in there. The worker in the trench survived, but he’s now unable to work. And again, a simple wearable tracker could have stopped it happening.
All of this points to the growing feeling that technology has a much deeper societal impact than ever before, particularly in higher-risk industries such as manufacturing and utilities.
It’s not just about doing things faster, more efficiently or at a lower cost. By making workers safer you can have an enormously positive impact on their personal lives and those of their loved ones.
And it’s all thanks to greater connectivity.
— Fujitsu UK Events (@FujitsuUKEvents) November 9, 2017
5. Blockchain is not just for banking
If you’re yet to be convinced about blockchain’s importance, consider the fact the European Commission recently announced a €30 billion investment fund for this technology.
When we’re talking about those kinds of sums it’s fair to say this innovation has gone beyond buzzword territory.
But while blockchain is almost always discussed in relation to new ways of banking, one point came out loud and clear at this year’s Fujitsu Forum: this technology has the power to disrupt other sectors too.
That’s exactly the point Mark Phillips made in his talk about digital co-creation and hybrid IT.
Take a look at Blockchain as a Service and you can immediately see how much more quickly it’s possible to deploy new working implementations when you take a co-creation approach #FujitsuForum
— The Hybrid Hive (@thehybridhive) November 8, 2017
He talked about ‘blockchain-as-a-service’, suggesting it has “significant application in any industry that has a significant number of intermediaries.”
And in one of the final sessions of the event, Blockchain: the opportunity beyond the hype, our financial services CTO Ian Bradbury seemed to echo that sentiment.
“Financial services was definitely the starting place for blockchain and will continue its evolution,” he said, referring to a current Fujitsu project with three of the largest banks in Japan that could see blockchain support transactions for 90 million customers.
“But most blockchain use cases are coming out of industries outside of financial services now.”
Pierre Audoin Consultants’ Katharina Dalka agreed that blockchain could be applied outside its traditional finance roots.
“The transactions don’t have to be financial,” she said. “It could be a document or even a music file. Anything. You can remove a lot of intermediaries.”
This could be huge for manufacturing. Imagine all of the work involved in all the different contracts and agreements across the supply chain. It’s hugely complex. And if you could take out all those pain points in a secure and compliant way it could literally transform your business.
I think of the transactions of energy storage and the way smart grids in the power sector will need a robust and distributed transaction model that is also trusted.
And blockchain’s inbuilt security and compliance functionality is, another panellist argued, one of the key reasons other industries will look to adopt it.
When you have security and trust intrinsically built into your system, you can be compliant from day one with very little extra work required.
In fact, according to host Elenice Macedo, some analysts believe that by 2030 financial services will only make up 10% of the blockchain market.
Could it be time for manufacturers to take the lead?
These were some of the points that jumped out at me at Fujitsu Forum 2017 – the areas I think will be most interesting for the manufacturing industry in the coming years.
But what do you think? Was there anything that particularly caught your attention?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I hope you enjoyed the event as much as I did.
See you again next year!
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Graeme has a first degree in Computing Science and a Masters in Business Administration. He has successfully used his experience and knowledge of both business and technology to deliver IT enabled change for many organisations. Outside of work, Graeme has completed a project to build his own house and plays regularly in a band.