On a discovery tour in the cradle of Industry 4.0

Germany, land of beer and sausages, country of Chancellor Merkel, but also the country in which in 2011 the term ‘Industry 4.0’ was introduced to describe the digital transformation within the manufacturing industry. From 15 to 17 October, we visited a number of leading Industry 4.0 businesses in Germany with a group of 30 Flemish entrepreneurs from various industries (from the pharmaceutical industry to wind turbines, from e-commerce to artificial intelligence service providers). In this way, we could see with our own eyes the actual progress that these German pioneers have made so far. We’ve learned the following five key lessons.


LESSON 1: Take the step to Industry 3.3 now

We started our tour in the Industry 4.0 Maturity Centre in Aachen. They support companies to switch from an Industry 3.0 factory, with a slow response to unplanned events, to an agile Industry 4.0 factory. This is typically done in 6 steps, assuming that factories already have computers (computerisation) and industrial networks (connectivity).

  1. Visibility: everything starts with the collection of data to be able to visualise the current production processes.
  2. Transparency: based on these data, they perform analyses to better understand the cause of certain events (machine and product failures).
  3. Predictability and adaptability: the next step is being able to predict future situations and respond better to them (e.g. machine deviations as input for predictive maintenance). In an agile Industry 4.0 factory, products and/or machines can respond appropriately and optimise themselves.

ontdekkingstocht-industrie-4-0-2On the whole, German companies are currently working on visibility and transparency measures so that in fact we can consider them as Industry 3.3 factories. However, the companies that we visited are already ahead of their competitors and have shown some inspiring examples of Industry 4.0 realisations. Besides, not all companies will take the final step to a fully autonomous 4.0 factory. In some cases, the extra investments needed for this will not outweigh the potential benefits. The first two steps, however, are indispensable for any business that wishes to maintain its production levels in a highly competitive environment.

During our visit to the HDL Innovation Centre in Troisdorf, we were told that their long-term vision is to achieve zero CO2 emission by 2050. To be able to realise this, it is important that they already take steps now. They are, for instance, currently using a fleet of self-developed electric vehicles for the last-mile delivery. These vehicles have an optimised design for loading and unloading parcels. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is used to predict the delivery volumes so that for every delivery a truck with the right size is used.

Also in their logistic centres, you’ll find Industry 4.0 implementations. DHL uses inexpensive 3D cameras from the gaming industry to measure the dimensions of parcels.  An autonomously driving cart with parcels follows an operator across the factory based on camera images of his/her calves.

LESSON 2: Industry 4.0 also impacts people

Industry 4.0 is not only about technological innovations. The digital maturity index also considers the organisational structure and culture. To be able to fully exploit the benefits of digitalisation, these will have to be adapted as well. Digital competences, open communication and agile management are just a few examples of this. It is clear that in order to realise the full potential of an Industry 4.0 implementation, progress should be made in these areas as well.

Our visit to the Siemens Campus for process automation showed that digitalisation is not only important for the discrete manufacturing industry but also for the process industry.

Siemens is investigating how they can support their operators on the shop floor using digital technology. During the guided tour, we could experience ourselves how they train their operators using Virtual Reality before they are deployed in the actual factory. We could also monitor the production through Augmented Reality glasses and got support during maintenance activities.

LESSON 3: Commercial services instead of products

The visit to Festo was for everyone a real eye-opener. Whereas we all know Festo as a manufacturer of pneumatic actuators and valves, the company also offers quite a few software solutions. Over the past few years, Festo has developed and rolled out a clear digitalisation strategy. They developed, for example, a comprehensive Cloud-based software tool for ‘smartenance’ (= smart condition monitoring and preventive maintenance). With this tool, you cannot only monitor Festo products but also products from other manufacturers for maintenance forecasts. This is an excellent example of creating and offering added value.

We saw another such example at GFT, an IT service provider for the financial and industrial sector. We learned how digitalisation creates new business models. Whereas traditionally customers pay for purchasing a product, they prefer today to pay for the use of this product. Accordingly, manufacturing companies not only sell products but also offer an increasing number of services. Think of predictive maintenance of machines or the optimisation of their energy consumption. This is needed to be able to control the risks related to the use of new business models. In this way, the sale of a machine is used as a door opener for the sale of a whole range of services. This evolution does yield some new challenges for traditional manufacturing companies. For instance, the implementation of new business models requires an agile organisational structure and a flexible business structure that can rapidly adapt themselves to new challenges.

LESSON 4: Big difference between AI for consumers and AI in the industry


Our last visit took us to ABB’s corporate research centre. One of their AI experts showed us the difference between the use of AI in consumer applications and the use of AI in the industry. Consumers are in fact a homogeneous group with many individual users.  This generates a lot of data. In the industry, on the other, numerous different machines are used so that per type of machine much smaller data sets are available. It is therefore crucial to combine these collected data with the knowledge that is available on the operation of these machines. Only through the cooperation of data scientists with domain experts that understand the operation of the relevant machines, the optimal operation of these machines can be ensured.               

LESSON 5: German cuisine is more than beer and sausages

At the end of our visit to the ABB demos, we were treated to a delicious espresso offered to us by their two-armed Yumi cobot. The night before, during a dinner with all our travel companions, we had already experienced that the clichés on German cuisine are completely unjustified. This three-day trip not only brought us a great variety of inspiring company visits, we also got to know many interesting people from the Flemish manufacturing industry, who – all in their own pace – are exploring the digital opportunities for their factory. We wish to thank our fellow travellers, the VOKA Chamber of Commerce Limburg and Flanders Make for this highly successful and inspiring business trip.

Dirk Torfs - CEO

Dirk Torfs - CEO

Dirk Torfs is CEO of Flanders Make since 2014. Dirk is a Civil, Mechanical and Electrical Engineer as well as a Doctor in Applied Sciences (KU Leuven). He has over 20 years of experience in management positions in the Flemish industry and is Professor of Quantitative Decision-Making for the Executive MBA programme of the Flanders Business School.

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