Developing Industry 4.0 approaches in as targeted a way as possible requires more than just a strong IT landscape with a command of artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. It also requires an industry that is open to innovation. Saarland is a traditional industrial hub that built up research and development skills in IT at an early stage. The region boasts high levels of competence thanks to the Saarland University, the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI), two Max Planck Institutes for Informatics and Software Systems, and the CISPA Helmholtz Center for Information Security. In close collaboration with local companies, they develop products and strategies that have had an impact well beyond the borders of Germany’s smallest federal state.
To ensure that companies do not only benefit from an excellent research landscape and an associated supply of young talent but also other ideal conditions, gwSaar Saarland Economic Promotion Corporation has developed industrial sites and commercial properties to meet all needs. The economic promoter also looks after all parts of the relocation process for new companies, including networking with local stakeholders.
We spoke to two Saarland companies who view Industry 4.0 as not just a buzzword, but rather a tool enabling efficiency and customer-oriented production.
The Hager Group offers solutions and services for electrotechnical installations in residential, industrial and commercial properties.
Its core business ranges from power distribution to cable routing to intelligent building control and security technology. The Hager Group covers the brands Hager, Berker, Bocchiotti, Daitem, Diagral, Efen and Elcom.
The company is continually developing innovative solutions for the control requirements of the key technological advances of our time, such as charging stations for electromobility, assistance solutions to support everyday life, and technologies for an intelligent home.
This Saarland-based company is a European company (Societas Europaea, SE). The Hager Group sets great store by cultural diversity and its European roots.
The company is active across the globe with 11,500 employees and achieved a turnover of 2.19 billion euros in 2019.
Question: What does intelligent production mean at Hager and what are the benefits?
Dr. Ralph Fürderer: At the Hager Group, the digitalisation of industrial processes – or Industry 4.0 – is approach designed to supplement improvements to our overall efficiency.
It is in particular a way of boosting added value for our customers, but it can also improve business performance in terms of the quality, competitiveness, flexibility and transparency of our production and information flows. We do not follow trends, but rather make targeted use of the opportunities available.
Let me explain: to us, Industry 4.0 does not mean just selectively incorporating new technologies such as additive processes (3D printing), collaborative robots or interactive data glasses into the production process. It is about linking up systems and machinery and seamlessly connecting digital information flows with the reality of production processes.
Targeted data analysis and the use of artificial intelligence improve the performance of our production flows for the long term. This means that new technologies promote the implementation of our end-to-end vision as part of Industry 4.0.
One good example of this is the digitalisation of our maintenance activities:
Question: Is your company pursuing a clear Industry 4.0 strategy?
Dr. Ralph Fürderer: The topic of Industry 4.0 is a broad and fragmented one, with new innovations virtually every day.
In this context, it is important not to get lost in the plethora of opportunities, but rather to focus on a clear strategy.
The aim of our strategy is to create visible added value for our customers. For us, this in particular means that our production processes need to be as efficiently designed as possible, from brainstorming right through to rollout. What does this actually mean?
Question: You mentioned a ‘learning factory’. Does the factory make mistakes? If so, how is the learning process managed?
Dr. Ralph Fürderer: From our perspective, a ‘learning factory’ is based on a seamlessly digitalised manufacturing process. This begins with raw material provision and is configured based on the aforementioned principles of Industry 4.0 right through to the finished product.
We learn by testing innovations in advance on a smaller scale before they are put to use in large-scale activities. We of course also make mistakes during this process, but these can be remedied in agile and lasting form in a controlled pilot environment.
At this point, let me highlight the vital role played by our employees in the industrialisation and ultimate use of Industry 4.0 technologies. Our colleagues’ knowledge is absolutely crucial: without their flexibility and skills, we would not be able to implement any learning production processes whatsoever.
This means that in a smart, learning factory, mechanical facilities and systems are interlinked via modular devices and IoT components. These intelligent devices and applications enable industrial installations to learn and continually improve their processes. Ultimately, it is a matter of gathering process data and intelligently evaluating it within a short period of time, so that we can continuously optimise our processes and provide our customers with the best possible service.
Question: You won awards with your Tool Management 4.0 project. Have you since set up further processes and tasks based on the principle of Industry 4.0?
Dr. Ralph Fürderer: Our Industry 4.0 ‘Tool Management’ project in 2014 made us the first industrial company in this environment, and even then we were performing vertical and horizontal integration of machinery, sensors, processes and systems. Our digital tool management gives our employees the opportunity to understand new technologies and identify their benefits for the company.
This project formed the basis for the Hager Group’s current digital Industry 4.0 application infrastructure. In recent years, we have been continually further digitalising our manufacturing processes and deploying them across various production sites.
Question: Saarland is home to the German Research Center for Artificial intelligence (DFKI) and other renowned IT research institutes. DFKI is one of the birthplaces of Industry 4.0. Does your company benefit from this research expertise in Saarland?
Dr. Ralph Fürderer: The Hager Group has been working closely with local institutions such as DFKI, HTW Saar and the August-Wilhelm Scheer Institute for many years.
We have implemented various projects with our partners in this innovative environment. Examples include a project on the neural networks of real-time facial recognition (2018 in DFKI), energy management for a new Hager Group building in Blieskastel (2017 with the August-Wilhelm Scheer Institute), and the ‘Liongrid’ project on the virtual energy plan (2017 with Scheer and HTW Saar).
Our group was also a founding member of the East Side Fab in Saarbrücken, a network of regional stakeholders from business, science and related areas.
Projects that are currently underway or in the pipeline include the ‘SUITE’ project for adaptive support based on artificial intelligence (with DFKI), the ‘Flexchain’ project for providing flexibility to consumer-side networks (with the August-Wilhelm Scheer Institute and Stadtwerke Saarlouis), and the ongoing application to the Ministry of Economic Affairs (BMWi) for the ‘ELIAS’ project covering the automatic linking of electric vehicles with charging infrastructure, in conjunction with East Side Fab, DFKI and HTW Saar.
Question: The Hager Group is active all over the world. Does Saarland offer benefits thanks to its location near the French border?
Dr. Ralph Fürderer: The Hager Group operates all over the world and makes use of local expertise. Our local focus is therefore as relevant as our global one. Some employees at our German site in Blieskastel are French. Similarly, we also have German colleagues at our Obernai site. As our roots are French and German, we have strongly internalised this culture. This also provides easier access to partners in business, science and other areas in both countries.
The Hager Group is therefore the only company in its competitive environment to occupy such a strong market position in both Germany and France.
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