Is the 3D printing overdrawn

Factory of the future is slowly taking shape

This diagnosis is not new: industrial goods production in rich countries has been a thing of the past since the 1970s. What production is not relocated to regions with lower wage costs will be automated piece by piece until "post-industrial" societies emerge in rich industrial countries. Timur Ergen, who works at the Max Planck Institute for Social Research in Cologne, considers this presentation to be a "narrative" that leaves much to be desired if you take a closer look. Where does the accounting department of a turbine manufacturer belong, asks Ergen? In the statistics it appears under "Services" and exaggerates their importance.

The makers of the current industrial fair in Hanover are happy to take note of such considerations. Under the main theme of "Industrial Transformation", 1250 exhibitors and thought leaders will virtually present their technologies for the factories of the future. And that against the background of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has shown the vulnerability of global supply chains abundantly, as exhibitors complain. Many companies are now trying to make themselves more independent of individual suppliers, to reduce their dependence on preliminary products from Asia and to increase the proportion of in-house production in Europe. A dozen companies are currently in the process of setting up production of OP and FFP2 masks in this country. With financial support from the federal government, one billion pieces are to be manufactured in Germany again in the future.

Corona has also intensified the trend towards decentralized production. The German biotech company Curevac built the prototype of a vaccine printer. "The printer is a small, mobile and therefore flexible unit," says company founder Florian von der Mülbe. “It is a small-scale, decentralized and automated production process.” The mini-factory is to be used where it is needed and at some point, perhaps, will even produce the vaccine required directly in the hospital.

However, Gunther Kegel, President of the Central Association of Electrical Engineering and Electronics Industry (ZVEI), warns against false expectations of »Industry 4.0«. Since the term became internationally acceptable at the Hanover Fair 2013 through a research report by the German Academy of Science and Engineering (Acatech), some illusions have burst.

This applies, for example, to the promised customization in industrial production. At the time, the sporting goods manufacturer Adidas set up three factories in which an additive manufacturing process, i.e. 3D printing, could produce a shoe individually according to the customer's specifications in the shortest possible time. But the young customers refused, they wanted to wear the "original" of their stars. The factories are history today.

Acatech's master plan is being implemented in part and at a leisurely pace. The digitization of production is an »evolutionary process«, warns ZVEI President Kegel. This also includes the slowly increasing use of production robots, artificial intelligence and 3D printers. The second megatrend in industry, electrification, is also developing in an evolutionary manner. Electricity, if possible from renewable sources, is replacing oil, coal and gas as the most important energy sources in industry. "If you now turn around and see what has happened, you will find that the speed here is rapid."

Kegel considers the individual approach in production, as tried by Adidas, to be a wrong path that large parts of the industry no longer follow. But mass production also creates customer-specific products through modular and building block systems. Here the factory of the future is already present. Kegel also sees rapid development in the conversion of processes from analog to digital. However, anyone who thought that the conversion would take place in step with digitization in office areas and logistics has no idea what industry actually is. It is about real systems, machines and physical processes. For example, "digital twins", in which the work processes of a factory are simulated on the computer, suffer notoriously from incomplete data. Not everything can simply be reproduced with ones and zeros.

»Industry 4.0« evidently brings less profound changes than expected. Nevertheless, even in China it is considered a top brand like “Made in Germany”, you can hear at the Hanover Fair. This is one of the reasons why the companies in the ZVEI and also in the mechanical engineering association VDMA see themselves as well positioned in the global competition for the factory of the future.

Nevertheless, the head of the BDI industrial association, Siegfried Russwurm, tries to use the hype to call for more government funding. He calls for the rapid expansion of the nationwide data networks, keywords 5G and 6G, an education offensive and the digitization of bureaucracy. Even small companies, according to Russwurm, have 130 contacts with authorities a year. Like in the 1970s.

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