Text Ulrich Kläsener ––– Photography
What solution would lend itself well to performing maintenance 10,000 kilometres away? On machines and systems, or IT containers buried deep in a mine? What about high-tech end devices such as data goggles? If a problem arises, they transmit key data straight to the local maintenance engineer or advise the manufacturer’s experts. Remote monitoring can be used to update software, arrange maintenance and, above all, perform preventive maintenance.
“The main advance is the direct feedback loop this creates – from the customer’s maintenance engineer to the design department at the mechanical engineering company,” explains Rittal CEO Dr Karl-Ulrich Köhler. “This informs the manufacturer of any specific improvements that can be made – to a certain component, for example – and can drive forward optimization, to the customer’s benefit.” Even data relating to malfunctioning in product applications can be put to good use by prompting modifications to the original engineering. Our efficient new world requires data that’s continuous, consistent and available anytime, anywhere.
Fuel and lubrication
“Digitization is unquestionably the paradigm of our age,” says Dr Köhler. Well-networked units, highly optimized departments and individual smart factories already exist.” However, there doesn’t seem to be widespread awareness of what is arguably the key issue – seamlessly digitized business processes.
These are crucial to creating the intelligent value chains required to keep companies competitive. And it’s data that powers and lubricates this driving force – in the manufacturing industry this manifests itself in the “digital twin”. This virtual prototype shadows the real product, preferably for its entire lifetime – from development and construction right through to recycling, and as a reference for new designs. “Simplify your life” is the motto. After all, anything that can be digitized can also be automated and standardized.
We can see why encompassing the entire process offers so much potential by looking back to the past – when the measures used to optimize processes generally focused on individual components. Insular thinking persisted into IT.
During the 1980s and ‘90s, companies equipped each department with specialist software, frequently in the form of stand-alone solutions. This achieved certain gains in efficiency, but caused breaks between media. Processing information across departments and tasks involved entering the very same data time and again. This caused double the work and lots of avoidable errors. “The potential for digitization is now evident in the processes used by international companies. Design, manufacturing and assembly take place at different locations, depending on the skills and tasks involved,” Dr Köhler explains. But the challenge still lies in enabling every department to access up-to-date information anytime, anywhere.
The interfaces between the specialist systems are where we need to start developing a continuous, dynamic value chain from heterogeneous, static landscapes. The digital twin is a key part of this, right from the start of a product’s lifecycle.
We also need modular IT systems that grow in power to keep pace with demand High-quality product data management that drives and supports real workflows knows no interfaces. Integrated processes create a single source of truth, in other words physically identical information.
The conditions for the digital transformation of business processes are created. For one, suppliers are starting to offer smart solutions with lean software-as-a-service models and highly secure cloud offerings. Thus, companies can meet demand and fall back on standard IT scenario, which thanks to the modular principle adapts to the individual circumstances.
Experience paves the way for digitization
“A wide spread of experience in Germany not only provides a head start in planning for digitization, but things have also been driven forward for years by relentless innovation,” says Dr Köhler. Admittedly, buzzwords such as Industrie 4.0 over-inflated people’s hopes to start with, which was followed by a wave of excessive criticism. Once the excitement died down, the first projects started to go live – such as at Haiger in central Hesse. In the 1,200 m² Rittal Innovation Center there, the company shows what can be achieved by merging digital and physical workflows in control system and switchgear engineering. Products that have been developed, designed and constructed using intelligent engineering tools go seamlessly into automated manufacturing. This is where we put the ideas behind cutting-edge methods – ranging from configure-to-order through to engineer-to-order – into practice.