Dr. Rohmer, what sort of development requests are you currently receiving from companies?
Günter Rohmer: Many requests from industry focus on technologies that can easily be retrofitted and integrated into existing systems. In the industrial setting, this isn’t about data capture in the sense of “big data” where the objective is to generate and collect as much data as possible and then process it in the cloud. In the Industrial Internet of Things, the question for companies is how to record the right data in the right place and at the right time. For this, you already need initial decision-making and/or analysis steps at the point when data is recorded, in order to reduce latencies and keep the data within the company.
What sort of technical expertise do IIoT applications primarily call for?
Günter Rohmer: Without precise information about the location, time, and production batch, a lot of data cannot be relied upon in communication or the networking of downstream processes. That’s why positioning technologies are of vital importance. Here at the Nürnberg site, we offer positioning expertise for everything from satellite-based positioning to accurate positioning in indoor applications. This expertise allows us to provide assistance systems for automated transport systems or intelligent tool tracking by combining various technologies into sensor fusion processes, for instance. The networking, or rather the communication, operates across wireless sensor networks, for example, and adapts to existing infrastructures.
What technological approaches are currently at the forefront of development?
Günter Rohmer: At the moment, we’re seeing a lot of demand for condition monitoring in indoor and outdoor applications. With our MIOTY technology, we offer a wireless transmission system that can transmit sensor data over long distances – several kilometers, for example – in a robust and reliable manner. MIOTY can be used to network several hundred thousand sensors and to relay data for the purpose of further analysis and regulation. The MIOTY protocol is currently undergoing standardization for low-power wide area networks by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). The decisive advantages of MIOTY technology also make it interesting for many cloud operators, as well as a wide range of other service providers. For example, it’s currently part of the early adopter program for services in the Microsoft Cloud. In particular companies that deal with predictive remote maintenance and that are planning new applications in this area are taking advantage of this efficient networking technology’s potential.
Particularly in the areas of intralogistics and assembly, companies are keen to use digitally networked technologies to handle the management and provision of the correct components at the assembly stand. Have you been putting any solutions of this kind through their paces?
Günter Rohmer: In terms of networking, we also work with wireless sensor technologies. In this context, sensor tags can be fitted to a wide range of objects, such as containers. The sensors use our s-net technology to connect to one another in so-called self-organizing multi-hop meshed networks: If a transmission path or partner is unavailable or connections are too weak, the intelligent sensor tag looks for the next available partner. In line with the concept of an intelligent object, the sensor tag can also already make decisions or conduct analyses independently. A pioneering application of this kind of sensor network is in intelligent container management in intralogistics and interlogistics. One practical example that has already been implemented is mobile picking systems, here, containers can be arranged on a flexible basis. The intelligent sensor tag ensures that the overall system always guides the operator to the correct container for the relevant assembly components. If you combine this with an additional technology such as inductive near-field positioning, for example, the system can also detect the fill level and the exact nature of the contents. The container can therefore initiate the refilling process autonomously.
Are you currently trialing your technologies in any other areas with a view to practical applications?
Günter Rohmer: Yes, as a division specializing in accurate positioning technologies, we are currently studying and developing practical solutions in order to record machine, object, and vehicle movements as accurately as the application requires and to provide this data in a suitable form for further networking and analysis processes. This includes efficient planning of the transport fleet both inside and outside the building. However, to allow the rapid and correct delivery of assembly parts or machines, we also equip industrial trucks with our positioning technologies. For example, the position of forklift trucks can be determined using the stand-alone wireless LAN positioning capabilities of the awiloc technology developed by Fraunhofer IIS. This ensures not only the availability of suitable trucks, but also optimized and reliable routing in production and logistics. However, this is another area where alternative approaches are also possible: Ultra-wideband technology can be used to guide the forklift truck to the precise pallet position – in combination with optical methods such as infrared, video, and many others. In this regard, it’s particularly important to us when implementing digital technologies to ensure precise adaptation to the application in question and to provide scope for expansion, but not to overload applications with too much technology from the outset.
You’ve already presented several scenarios from a technological perspective. Are there any specific research or pilot projects relating to these scenarios?
Günter Rohmer: This year we’ve already completed several projects with industrial partners and carried out live testing of the potential of networked digital assistance systems during assembly. In collaboration with BMW AG, our network box for intelligent tool tracking was fi tted to several workstations where production staff use hand-guided screwdrivers. The technology was connected to the existing infrastructure at a pilot line at the Regensburg factory. A display on the screwdriver indicates to the production staff whether all operations have been executed. Further stages of expansion are conceivable, potentially including transparent verifi cation for safety-relevant steps of the process.
We’re also currently working on research and development projects with Siemens with a view to integrating positioning and networking technologies into the engine assembly process. In addition, we have many industrial partners who already rely on our cognitive sensor technologies in a wide range of scenarios.
Dr. Rohmer, if you look ahead to the future, what are the next key milestones on the successful path towards Industry 4.0 from a technological development perspective?
Günter Rohmer: From our discussions with customers and the numerous user workshops and forums, it’s clear that companies are acknowledging the need for digitalization in their production processes. Generating widely available knowledge, establishing partly digitized processes, and having the conviction that it’s possible to achieve considerable effi ciency improvements in this context are clear objectives for the next fi ve years in the management and planning departments of companies, be they small or medium-sized enterprises or large corporations. I therefore think we’ve put the most important prerequisite in place by adopting an approach based on technologies that can be combined with one another and that mirror the human system of perception – recording and selecting important data in the right place, making it transparent, and then feeding it back into the process. This approach can then be implemented within partly or fully automated networked environments and translated into new services. Without this technological basis, it will be some time before the Internet of Things fi nds practical applications in the industrial setting, and there will be delays in the implementation of many ideas surrounding new services, distributed working, and business development in the industrial cloud.
What do your teams have planned for 2018?
Günter Rohmer: In 2018, we’ll continue forging ahead with the work we’ve begun on positioning and networking technologies. With this in mind, we’ll present new examples of how cognitive systems can be used in production and logistics. In addition to our standardization activities for industrial communication systems in the context of MIOTY and our activities relating to 5G, there are also many points of contact in this area that can help us make the Industrial Internet of Things a reality in collaboration with our industrial partners.