Digitalization up close
Keyboards, screens, flashing lights and robots everywhere – if Lieutenant Commander Data were to appear around the corner, the feeling of being at a sci-fi convention would be complete. In actual fact, I’m at the Hannover Messe (HM) trade fair.
The rumors of CeBIT’s decline have grown louder over recent years and, despite its renaissance in June, the word from insiders behind closed doors is that HM is the new CeBIT. Of course, this may have something to do with the fact that the venue is the same and the weather is better in spring than at the end of winter.
However, it also shows that ICT clearly cannot be kept in a box. Indeed, it is becoming an integral element of all industries. Back in 1948, Hannover Messe took pride in having its own telephone connection to New York – in 2018, the exhibition halls buzz with bits and bytes instead. As someone who markets automobiles, I can see the same issues that are driving my industry in evidence at HM. Virtually all the exhibitors now depend on ICT in some form, whether artificial intelligence for robots, wearables for controlling human/machine interaction or edge computers for evaluating data direct at machinery.
Efficient production – the fun way
Machines need to become more human, while humans need easier ways to communicate with machines via ICT components. Many of the exhibits on show are fun and entertaining, with robotic arms that can be controlled by gestures, for instance. But all this light-hearted amusement relates to a serious concern – mechanical engineering must reflect current customer requirements, including the user experience. Boosting safety and efficiency in the handling of machines and in production capacity, improving quality, and taking the strain off staff – these are all plus-points that engineers can and must use to win over customers. And cutting-edge ICT opens the door to these add-ons.
Automotive engineering – a flying visit
While mechanical engineers offer their customers products with new functions to boost efficiency, automakers have to think one step further. The automotive sector isn’t just about products that are faster and more reliable or offer new functions – it’s also about new business models like autonomous taxis as part of new mobility services. Meanwhile, trends for more intelligent solutions in the automotive industry also create new challenges for quality management. This is something Frank Moser, Head of Corporate Quality at Porsche, addresses in his keynote speech at the automotiveIT Forum at Hannover Messe. As he points out, dissatisfied users are not necessarily people who have opened up the hood of their car and seen something they don’t like the look of in its inner workings. They can also be people who are disappointed with the quality of new online services within the vehicle. Is this a matter for the nearest (certified) repair workshop? Or for a service unit provided by the manufacturer itself? Or for an IT support partner? This new era clearly calls for new service processes to cover all eventualities.
Farewell to human labor?
At the fringes of Hannover Messe, there is also debate over whether robots and smart factories are set to make humans redundant in production processes. This certainly seems a real concern if the future production processes showcased in the “Cubetec” project from DAIMLER are anything to go by. Dr. Claus-Dieter Reiniger, Project Manager at Mercedes-Benz Cars TECFABRIK, proposes that parts supply will be based on a supermarket system, with automated guided vehicles autonomously delivering sets of components to the assembly line. However, researchers at the Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) in Mannheim argue that, on balance, digitalization is creating more jobs than it is replacing. Routine tasks are set to disappear, while analytical and interactive roles will flourish.
Speaking of robots as workers, I’m off to have another look for Lieutenant Commander Data. He must be here somewhere! Perhaps, as an AI robot, he’s helping with one of the machines. Or perhaps our imagination is still one step ahead of reality.