Power the Future Report: How the Internet of Things will revolutionise industrial production

2015 February 04, 08:50 CEST

AUTHORS: Professor Detlef Zühlke, Dr. Dominic Gorecky and Stefanie Fischer, Innovative Factory Systems department at the German Research Centre

Under pressure of globalisation, our industry will undergo a period of major challenges including shorter product life cycles, highly customised products and stiff competition from various markets around the world. These challenges are already evident in today's mobile phone market. Product life cycles have decreased to around six-nine months, while functionalities and also complexity of products have steadily increased.

A comparable development is currently taking place in other sectors, such as the automobile industry. With products becoming more complex and the product life cycle more limited, computer-aided technologies (CAx) continue to grow in importance during the production ramp-up optimisation and acceleration period. Although the advancement of CAx during the past ten years has enhanced flexibility in the design and planning phases, a similar breakthrough is still anticipated in the actual manufacturing phase. A high product variability aligned with shortened product life cycle requires an agile and flexible production structure, which can be rapidly reconfigured for new product demands. This degree of flexibility cannot be achieved by traditional automation. Instead, modular factory structures composed of smart devices – the so-called 'Cyber-Physical Systems' (CPS) – that are part of the 'Internet of Things' network, are key elements in enabling adaptable production scenarios that can both address and overcome current challenges.

Over the last ten years, we have witnessed a fundamental transformation in our daily life with the emergence and growth of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). Computers are becoming so small they seem to vanish inside nearly all of our technical devices. Beyond all of this, things communicate in a world-wide network: The Internet.

When we contemplate following this path into the future, we find that nearly all the everyday things will become smart nodes within a global network. This phenomenon is called the 'Internet of Things' (IoT); a trend that will almost certainly find its way into industrial production. The strong bias of the electro-technical and hierarchical world of factory automation will transition to smart factory networks, which increasingly benefit from the advances in ICT and computer sciences. In Germany, a major debate on the fourth Industrial Revolution or, in shorthand, 'Industry 4.0' has started.

Interest has continuously grown since the introduction of this term in April 2011 by Kagermann/Lukas/Wahlster (2011 – Reference 1). Under the impetus of a working group formed from experts in the scientific and business communities, a vision has been developed for German industry and provided in the form of recommendations to the federal government. As a result, a research program has been established, with funding of approximately 200 million euros over the next few years. Furthermore, the three major German industry associations (VDMA, ZVEI, and BitKom) have joined forces to create a shared platform to facilitate the coordination of all Industry 4.0 activities.

These actions have contributed to a general hype, which has been promoted mainly via media channels. However, there is also a genuine interest on the part of the manufacturing industries to achieve the sustainable success of this vision. Germany is a high-tech nation and generates a large portion of its gross domestic product (GDP) from the manufacture of goods as well as from the required production equipment. The following section presents the fundamental challenges and changes anticipated in the vision of Industry 4.0.

The vision of Industry 4.0

A distinguishing feature of the new technological environment is the transition to mechatronic systems. Electronics will be a fundamental component of future products, while hardware will be increasingly standardised. The major features determining the functionalities will be created by the software. In this way traditional machine elements are transformed to mechatronic systems. A function can be implemented by mechanics, electronics, or software. The design and production as well as the service therefore require an interdisciplinary team, combining competencies in mechanical, electrical and software engineering.

Smart objects 

The key driver for the Industry 4.0 vision is the 'Internet of Things' (IoT). In this vision, all factory ‘objects’ will have a unique IP address and be integrated into networks. The technical term coined for such an object is a ‘Cyber-Physical-System’ (CPS) (2012 – Reference 2). The traditional production hierarchy will be replaced by a decentralised self-organisation enabled by CPS in the factories of the future. Plant sections and production processes will become so independent and flexible that even the smallest batch can be produced under conditions of rapid product changeover and any number of options.

The machine-to-machine communication enables commands to be issued by the individual machines, for example, to transport a raw product or to use a specific manufacturing service. The product’s semantic memory dynamically controls its manufacturing process and therefore allows decentralised mass production at batch ‘1’.

Many of these smart elements will be mobile and linked together over wireless networks; which implies losing vital positioning data that was implicitly delivered to us by the ‘end of cable’ in the old hard wired systems (compare Figure 1). This is especially critical in the area of plant operations. An employee that uses a mobile operating device such as a smart phone, can no longer be located in a specific position. The user may be somewhere on the shop floor, but could also be in the cafeteria. The application must take into account the current position of the employee in order to decipher whether a functionality is currently supported or not. To solve this dilemma, not only indoor location systems with comparable features to GPS will be required, but new rules and methods for the design of context sensitive human-machine interfaces must be found that enable a decoupling of the hardware and operating software currently in use.

Figure 1: Smart objects – Mobile, modular and decentralised.

New communication architectures

Today's factories follow a strict, hierarchical information structure. At the upper layers, we find the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which is installed above the plant control systems (MES and NC/PLC). At the lowest layer, the sensor and actuator systems of the plant, the so-called field devices. Although, in recent years these layers have been increasingly integrated with one another; the major system integration has taken place in the horizontal direction, not the vertical. A network of CPS will inevitably require a new approach to architectures. The common pyramid-like structures characterised by strong horizontal networking as well as weak vertical communication will be replaced by a domain-oriented network structure, which in principle, enables any number of paths across all information layers of the factory.

Plant systems built on the principles of IoT and CPS will make today's PLC systems superfluous, because each end device will communicate with every other even if located at a different layer. The specification of process logic (also known as orchestration) will take place in the network, not in a dedicated control element.

New programming paradigms

Today, program controls turn for the most part on the hardware structures that are generally based on rules and standards that are 20 or more years old. In the future world of networked self-organising CPS, hardware and control logic must be strictly separated. Several paradigms already exist in this respect. For example, the service-oriented architectures (SoA) or the multi-agent architectures (MAS).

Both approaches encapsulate and abstract the hardware functionality and contain mechanisms for self-organising systems. Furthermore, a series of programming models already exist that permit the specification of control logic or orchestration. However, such approaches require a high degree of knowledge in computer sciences, which complicates the implementation at shop floor level by people not trained in this area of expertise. In this respect, the migration of such architecture paradigms from the upper factory layer where they are already partially deployed, through the mid-layer MES systems is the most promising path, which also takes into consideration the technical backgrounds of the personnel involved.

In today's production planning and control process, the control system design comes at the end of the planning phase as it relies on the results of the mechanical and electrical designs. The programming of the logic controls does not begin until the control terminals are selected and it is decided how these are to be wired. Abstraction concepts like SoA can be useful in severing the relationship with the initial implementation hardware and to create reusable software components.

Establishing a new engineering workflow is necessary to provide the hardware independent, functional, and top-down planning approach required. The traditional planning domains have to be more closely integrated, especially in the early planning phases, in order to provide alignment later on in the planning process. Systems engineering approaches can help to support the interdisciplinary tasks, as successfully demonstrated in the aerospace technology sector.

Creating a transparent presentation is therefore a challenge due to the complexity of the planning results and the interrelationships among the associated disciplines. This will require practical procedures for an incremental, model-based engineering strategy to be achieved, as well as the appropriate modeling languages, data formats, and tool chains.

The goal for future smart factories must be the removal of the media gap between the CAx/PLM environments and the actual functioning plant. The PLM tool needs to possess the capability to generate complete system descriptions, which can convert directly into executable control services. The code must then enable both simulation of a virtual plant as well as the set-up and operation of the actual plant.


As described in the basic model, the strict separation of hardware and functionality can only be successful if based on standards. A CPS element must be built in a similar style, at least in terms of information technology, as a LEGO building block. In other words, the element must communicate on the basis of standards at all layers of the ISO/OSI 7-layer model. At least the transport layers 1-4 already rely on many established standards such as the various IEEE 802.xx or Internet Protocol IP standards; the respective standards for the application-based layers 5-7 will only arrive under massive market pressures. It’s evident that no manufacturer is attracted by the idea of turning its products into interchangeable LEGO blocks. The current debate on a standard process in the area of industrial wireless networks (e.g., ISA100) or the device description specification language (e.g., FDT) indicates both resistance and a conflict of interests. At least there appears to be a promising implementation approach with OPC UA for layers 5-6 that more and more manufacturers and users are willing to accept.


A distinguishing feature of future factory control systems is the use of IP-based networks at all layers. This facilitates the import of data from a field device to the higher level ERP system without any problems. However, this can put the factory at risk to ever more powerful cyber-attacks through the use of open protocols. STUXNET and other malicious software (malware) make it absolutely clear the threat is a real one. A CPS-based production environment can ultimately be implemented successfully only if the high standard of security and trust in this technology comes from within the business. This demands not just technological solutions, but perhaps more importantly, organisational measures. A definitive answer to the security question will be a key subject along the way and requires proposals from industry, research, and government.

What is the immediate future going to look like?

It is predicted that this version of the Industry 4.0 vision will find its way into future production environments in around 10 to 15 years. In respect to all the questions that need to be answered and to all the research work that needs to be done, it will still take time until such holistic manufacturing scenarios are universally implemented and accepted in our industries.

Consequently, first elements and first objects, suitable to the vision, will travel along an evolutionary road before finding their way into practical usage. The availability of information in high resolution and the reduction of media gaps constitute the foundation to enable versatile, transparent production environments. Already available auto-ID technologies can help to track elements and represent them in the digital world. Mobile devices such as laptops, tablet-PCs or SmartGlasses provide immediate access to enterprise knowledge from almost everywhere and anywhere – within the business and beyond. Accordingly, decisions and actions can be based on comprehensive and accurate information and reactions will be faster, supported by smart assistance systems, as shown in figure 2.

Figure 2: Mobile devices and smart assistance systems in the immediate-future of production.

The technology initiative SmartFactoryKL – as a manufacturer-independent demonstration and research platform – has already taken a huge step towards the Industry 4.0 vision by developing and deploying solutions which enable flexible production structures, addressing the current industrial challenges. Within its network of more than 30 industrial partners, the SmartFactoryKL tests and develops innovative information and communications technologies and their application in a realistic, industrial production environment. Within the latest project, a ground-breaking production line was developed in a joint effort with industrial key partners (see Figure 3). The production line is completely modular and allows a plug-and-play integration of new manufacturing modules. The plug-and-play functionality is achieved on the basis of a set of mechanical, electronic and information technical standards defined by the SmartFactoryKL and its partners.

Figure 3:    Demonstration plant for future production in the SmartFactoryKL .


No technological revolution has ever been initiated in haste. More often the upheavals take place over a period of several decades in an evolutionary transition driven by advances in multiple technical areas (technology-push), but also as a result of new market demands (market-pull). It is highly likely that the current movement towards Industry 4.0 will have a similar evolutionary aspect lasting several decades. A positive aspect is that Industry 4.0 is providing a clear vision which both manufacturer and end-user can successfully adapt to. The scientific insights of the IT environment are being closely linked to the requirements of the production environment. This demands the interdisciplinary cooperation of traditionally separate disciplines.

Human beings, however, will be the most important factor in this transition process. If the three previous revolutions are analysed, it is evident that human needs and living standards have been the main driving force behind the changes. When these requirements meet the right technological boundary conditions, it seems to result in fertile fields for innovative changes. Since the third Industrial Revolution, more commonly known as the Digital Revolution, many innovative technologies as well as political changes have influenced the way people live with one another. Characteristic examples include the ending of the Cold War, the opening of global markets – especially China´s – together with technological progress (for example, the Internet and smart devices).

Humans not only have the important role of technology driver, but also the role of the driven. Modern ICT leads to a sharp acceleration in all business processes, and does so in a global context. Offers to supply production plants and services can be sent around the world in seconds, while global syndicates can instantaneously be formed to supply solutions. More efficient and integrated logistics systems on land, sea, and air can deliver goods to customers in much shorter times. In order to succeed in the competitive global environment, production systems need agility and the ability to transition rapidly. This will be made possible by the advances in ICT. People will need to plan, implement, and operate ever more quickly in this new systems environment. Only those nations of the world that manage to adjust the training and education of their citizens in a timely manner to the new realities will be successful within the global marketplace.

Europe is in a good position in this respect. The EU is among the world's leaders in the fields of research concerning networked embedded systems, semantic technologies, and the design of complex cyber-physical systems. Herein lies a great opportunity for the European industries to take a technological quantum leap and master the challenges of the global market.


1. Kagermann, H., Lukas, W., Wahlster, W. (2011). Industrie 4.0: Mit dem Internet der Dinge auf dem Weg zur 4. industriellen Revolution, VDI-Nachrichten.
2. Geisberger, E., Broy, M. (2012). Integrierte Forschungsagenda Cyber-Physical Systems, Acatech Studie, Berlin.
3. Zuehlke, D. (2010). SmartFactory – Towards a Factory-of-Things, In: IFAC Annual Reviews in Control, Volume 34, Issue 1, ISSN 1367-5788


Prof. Dr.-Ing. Dr. h.c. Detlef Zühlke

Detlef Zühlke is director of the Innovative Factory Systems department at the German Research Centre (DFKI-IFS) for artificial Intelligence in Kaiserslautern. He is also the initiator and chairman of the executive board of SmartFactoryKL and holds the chair for production automation at the University of Kaiserslautern.

Dr.-Ing. Dominic Gorecky
Dominic Gorecky is a senior researcher and the deputy head of DFKI-IFS. In his role, he is responsible for the scientific management and strategic coordination of the department.

M. Sc. Stefanie Fischer
Stefanie Fischer is researcher and head of communications of the SmartFactory. In this role, she works on different projects and is responsible for marketing and communications.

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