Future Urban Production – how WITTENSTEIN AG is becoming an Industry 4.0 pioneer

Data collection and processing are at the heart of production assistance systems. They enable staff members to retrieve information about the current state of production quickly and easily, anytime and anywhere. © WITTENSTEIN AG

When the assembly line was invented one hundred years ago, it fundamentally revolutionised the production process. Today another revolution is in the making. It’s called Industry 4.0, and it will involve much more than just production processes. Here to tell us how WITTENSTEIN AG is handling this revolution and what they see on the horizon are Dr Jochen Schlick and Dr Peter Stephan.

Industry today is at the beginning of a sweeping transformation. WITTENSTEIN AG has responded to these changes and set up a shop window factory called bastian GmbH. Its Future Urban Production facility in Fellbach, just outside Stuttgart, implements various use cases in which the “internet of things” has already significantly improved the production process. The insights gained there translate to a lasting competitive advantage for WITTENSTEIN AG.

BDI: WITTENSTEIN AG views itself as an Industry 4.0 pioneer. What does the buzzword Industry 4.0 mean to you?

Dr Jochen Schlick and Dr Peter Stephan: At an abstract level, WITTENSTEIN defines Industry 4.0 as copying the internet of things to industrial production. At its core, this involves effectively accessing information in the factory and efficiently analysing it with internet technologies. In the past there has been some confusion about the term Industry 4.0. In 2015, however, two documents were published that very clearly summarise the topic. One is an introductory guide, called “Leitfaden Industrie 4.0”, by professors Reiner Anderl and Jürgen Fleischer. The other is a brochure from the Impuls Stiftung entitled “Industrie 4.0 Readiness”. Both were funded and commissioned by the German Engineering Federation (VDMA). The first defines technical dimensions and development stages for Industry 4.0 use cases, while the second outlines a capability maturity model for describing an Industry 4.0 business strategy. Both publications define Industry 4.0 on the basis of various dimensional parameters and development stages. WITTENSTEIN’s understanding of Industry 4.0 draws on these detailed definitions.

Having the entire supply and value chain digitally interconnected is a central feature of Industry 4.0. This begins with the digitisation of production and manufacturing machinery. Where does WITTENSTEIN AG stand in this regard?

WITTENSTEIN AG has been working on the topic of Industry 4.0 intensively for the last three years as part of the federally funded research project CyProS. Following a progressive perspective, WITTENSTEIN’s bastian GmbH shop window factory in Fellbach – which is called “Future Urban Production” – implements various use cases in which the internet of things is used to close media gaps, reduce organisational losses and optimise processes.

Besides helping to improve operational processes, this has enabled us to understand how digitisation could potentially change not only a company’s production but also its products and ultimately its existing business models. The challenge for us now, on the one hand, involves using further use cases on our factory floor to develop a broader foundation for the insights we have gained. On the other hand, we have the job of converting the interrelationships we have identified into a lasting competitive advantage for WITTENSTEIN AG on the product side.

How has digitalisation changed the production and manufacturing processes in your company?

By closing media gaps in logistics, production and production planning, we now get an up-to-date, real-time snapshot every 15 minutes of the current state of production planning as well as a picture of how stock is distributed on the shop floor. Naturally, this has a big impact on our process flexibility. Not only do our staff members have a transparent overview of current information from production, they can also use a tablet computer to quickly and easily feed order processing information back into the production planning system.

Of course, these concepts don’t just have an operational benefit. They change a worker’s role from uncritical implementer to informed decision-maker. As a result of this insight, the company was able to implement completely new ways of integrating staff members in process and workflow optimisation in the use cases we implemented.

Were there unexpected effects too?

Those effects could best be described by the saying, “You don’t get hungry until the food is served,” and we saw them in different places. Our intense conceptual approach to the topic of digitalisation and the associated optimisation of information flows resulted in a large number of small improvements that we had not anticipated – especially in the area of production planning. We also have the job of converting the interrelationships we have identified into a lasting competitive advantage for WITTENSTEIN AG on the product side.

Beyond that, we observed an effect in which the use cases we implemented led other groups in production to implement further digitalisation approaches on their own. This shows very clearly that in Industry 4.0, one of the key aspects of implementation is using pilot projects to stimulate the imagination of as many staff members as possible. Beneficial ideas for use then emerge in a bottom-up process almost on their own.

Do you think Industry 4.0 will lead to job losses?

This is a very important question, and it needs to be considered carefully. We know for a fact that Industry 4.0 does not significantly reduce activities that add value, such as searching for the right information or searching for materials in production. It makes planning processes more efficient, which enables staff to concentrate more on their core activities. We believe Industry 4.0 significantly increases the need for skilled workers and what is required of these workers.

That being said, if German industry manages to translate the idea of Industry 4.0 into specific new products and services, it is safe to assume there will not be a loss of jobs. On the contrary: as a country that equips the factories of the world, we are in the perfect place to use Industry 4.0 to position ourselves in the global market as a leading provider of connected and connectable products and services that build on that technology. In this context we can expect additional jobs to emerge across a broad range of expertise.


If new jobs emerge, how will qualification requirements change?

To provide a precise answer to this question, it makes sense to distinguish between those who use Industry 4.0 applications and those who develop them.

As users of Industry 4.0 applications, people on the shop floor will increasingly take on the role of informed decision-makers who will be empowered to turn a wealth of pre-processed information into optimised processes in a goal-oriented, situation-appropriate way. Against this backdrop, it will be more important for them to be able to confidently reach decisions on their own. This also includes being able to use cross-process thinking to estimate what impact a decision will have on other areas and processes in the company outside of one’s own area of responsibility.

On the application-development side of Industry 4.0, there will be demand for interdisciplinary experts who have specialised knowledge of both IT and production engineering. Another basic prerequisite will be the ability to use good communication skills to include different groups (IT and relevant specialised departments in production) and the ultimate users at the shop-floor level in the process of developing and implementing Industry 4.0 applications.

We see future job profiles for both groups moving towards qualifications that provide more added value while also being increasingly interdisciplinary and more hands-on.

Have you been able to develop any new business models by using customer-oriented digital media?

Developing and implementing a new business model is a highly complex and creative process. It involves much more than just the technical development of a new product. The far more important part is to ask basic questions about what the company’s modified range of services might look like, what new customer groups it would target, what type of organisation and resources are needed to provide it, and, last but not least, how the company creates value from this new form of business activity.

WITTENSTEIN AG expects new market-changing business models to evolve out of the technology push we are experiencing as a result of the digitisation megatrend. So, at a strategic level, we are keeping a close eye on this disruptive dimension of Industry 4.0. Naturally, this also includes asking ourselves what digital features and digital services might be used for WITTENSTEIN products.


Related Links

More information on WITTENSTEIN AG’s Production of the Future
Industry 4.0 Readiness from the Impuls Stiftung