Bernhard Wiedemann (left) and Jochen Bihl (right), Founders Managing Directors of Bihl+Wiedemann
The efficiency of the intelligent factory in the age of industry 4.0 rises and falls on the quality of the data to be analyzed. At the same time, ever more complex production plants need ever simpler structures if they are to remain manageable by the operator. Especially equipment at the base level of automation needs to be upgraded without compromise. In a conversation with ASi MASTER NEWS Jochen Bihl and Bernhard Wiedemann sketch out their strategy.
ASi MASTER NEWS: Mr. Bihl, it was almost exactly two years ago when in an interview on the subject of industry 4.0 you said: “Even if no one can yet define in specific detail what the optimizations will look like – one thing is clear: something great is imminent.” How does your estimation sound today?
Jochen Bihl: That something great was imminent has been more than confirmed in the meantime. What exactly it looks like in detail is something we still don’t know, but we actually don’t have to: the big data analyses which will be a basis for the intelligent factory of tomorrow are being performed on a much higher level than that of the actuators and sensors. At the end of the day we are “only” responsible for ensuring that the data arrives there in the most optimal form and in the most efficient way possible so that it can be analyzed. And I say “only” in quotation marks because we cannot forget what an enormous challenge lies behind this task. If the data coming from the lower level is no good, the analyses on the upper level are of no use at all.
Bernhard Wiedemann: Our ASi Gateways are often the first component in the automation pyramid which provides sufficient performance to deliver all the data from actuators and sensors to various interfaces. And this is exactly what we see at the moment as our most pressing task: making our devices ready for all the increasing demands our customers will place on us in the next few years as part of industry 4.0.
ASi MASTER NEWS: How much time is still left for this?
Bernhard Wiedemann: Not much. The whole thing has in fact become concrete for us faster than we originally thought. There has been a lot of talking about it for quite some time already. But now there are users who are saying: “As soon as you have devices with the needed power and necessary interfaces, we are ready to install them – we can already see the added value.” Which is why we are working intensively right now on the implementation. We will be introducing the first results at sps ipc drives in Nuremberg.
Jochen Bihl: I believe this sudden dynamic on the part of our customers is the best thing that could have happened to us. The direct line to practical situations is known to motivate our developers to their greatest level of accomplishment. We always prefer to find concrete solutions to concrete problems in cooperation with our customers. When the results of these specific solutions then turn out to have universal application, this is of course ideal. And this is exactly the ideal case we are dealing with here.
ASi MASTER NEWS: What should, and what will run more efficiently, simpler and faster in the digital factory of tomorrow compared with today?
Bernhard Wiedemann: First comes the recognition that automation technology must provide an appropriate response to the rapidly increasing complexity of manufacturing plants. If the technology doesn’t change, there will inevitably come a point where it is no longer manageable by the user. Therefore we need to structure the systems simpler, and they need to become more logical.
Jochen Bihl: The demand for easier operation of the systems means conversely that complexity on the component manufacturer side is exploding. Take for example a 7-year old boy with his new smart phone: he can easily talk to his grandmother, watch videos and chat with his friends on WhatsApp. But this is only possible because in the background the device is taking care of everything required for complicated technical operations.
ASi MASTER NEWS: Does this mean your vision is for manufacturing systems to someday become as easy to use as a smart phone?
Jochen Bihl: Exactly. The user should be able to go through his plant with a tablet in his hands and with one click get an overview of everything that is important to him at this moment. The system could use voice output to say “Check in the back, left side, there is a loose terminal on module 4711 – you need to tighten it before it causes trouble.” There shouldn’t be any more unexpected problems, since big data analyses can identify more of the potential problem sources far in advance.
Bernhard Wiedemann: And once a month the strategy program could make a suggestion for targeted optimizations of the individual production steps – say according to the motto “If you make the following changes you can produce two more automobiles per day. We know this because we have performed a simulation using the actual data from the specific machine, which we record every day and every second.”
ASi MASTER NEWS: And the optimal data for big data comes in part from AS-Interface?
Bernhard Wiedemann: Yes. The data is to a certain extent the raw material. It has always been there, but until now it hasn’t been accessible. With our new hardware platform we are able to aggregate the data and deliver it in a form that allows the data analysts to do something intelligent with it. What they exactly do with it is less important to us. Our job is to prepare and provide the data in the best way possible for any conceivable use.
Jochen Bihl: There is one critical aspect here: we integrate an additional interface into our devices so that the IT specialists can have direct access to our data. This is important because the controller of the plant is of course still running in parallel. Without this additional interface the data would have to be routed to the top through multiple controllers. This would represent not only enormous effort for the PLC programmers, but also great risks: if something goes wrong, in the worst case the machine or the warehouse may be entirely shut down. ASi MASTER NEWS: I assume this additional interface also noticeably increases the requirements for the computing power of your devices? Bernhard Wiedemann: Correct. The ASi Gateways that we started with had just one interface to the top and one to the bottom, and in between some calculations were made. At that time there was also just one recipient interested in the data from sensors: the PLC. Today we are dealing with multiple recipients: from the diagnostic software to the remote maintenance server to the visualization tool. Furthermore each module communicates via Safe Link with many others of its kind in other safe ASi networks. All that happens simultaneously. And now IT analysis comes along as an additional entity that wants to be supplied with data. Jochen Bihl: To give you just a few figures: our earlier device generations had a 16 MHz processor. Our future hardware platform will use dual-core processors running at 800 MHz. The computing power of our devices has therefore grown by a factor of 100 in the last 10 years. In words: one hundred! Of course here we benefited from a favorable situation in the processor market. We are clearly benefiting from the fact that the prices for powerful, small chips have fallen thanks to rapid development in the area of mobile phones. And so we decided to go right to the limits of what was affordable in order to develop ‘future-proof’ solutions so that we are prepared for any eventualities over the next five years.
ASi MASTER NEWS: Do these dramatically increasing demands pertain only to the standard application or also to safety technology?
Bernhard Wiedemann: When all is said and done there is hardly any difference. The only thing that is different are the respective drivers. In standard applications the trend is towards industry 4.0, which makes upgrading unavoidable. Our safety concepts on the other hand need greater performance because we are finding ourselves in ever more complex environments. This means the object is to control even more drives and turn them off with even greater differentiation. In early 2016 for example we were able to safely monitor eight drives via CIP Safety over Sercos, and tomorrow it will need to be 30 of them. This is not a factor of 100, but still a different order of magnitude – and it has to be implemented in an even shorter time. ASi MASTER NEWS: With respect to the additional interface in your devices you have settled on the OPC UA protocol. Why was that?
Jochen Bihl: There are several reasons. For one thing it is an open standard that enables communication with a wide range of components. We can take the data we have collected and send it to a cloud, a local server or to a visualization tool. It is precisely this flexibility that plays such a central role in view of further developments concerning industry 4.0. For another, OPC UA is currently the most widely used protocol in this context. Which is why as of today at least we consider it to be the best solution? And then there was also another very individual reason for this decision: customers are already waiting for our gateway with OPC UA so that they can connect it past the PLC to the operating panels. Should a different standard establish itself tomorrow, that would of course not be a problem for us either. Multi-language automated communication based on many different protocols is actually one of our specialties. Consider just our wide range of Gateways from AS-Interface to nearly all commonly used automation systems.
Bernhard Wiedemann with the new EtherNet/IP+Modbus TCP Gateway BWU3543
ASi MASTER NEWS: IT security is of course gaining in importance in the age of industry 4.0. How secure is secure given the current state of the art?
Bernhard Wiedemann: In the first place OPC UA offers a clean cryptographic concept. It contains all the modern mechanisms such as RSA or AES, which are of course supported by our devices – and these are the best prerequisites for building an effective cryptography infrastructure in the respective plant. Additional security comes from the fact that the various network interfaces in our devices are physically separated. This simplifies segmentation of the systems greatly and thereby makes access from one network to another much more difficult. Jochen Bihl: And any users who do not want to use OPC UA currently don’t need to worry either. The OPC UA interfaces in our devices are disabled by default. ASi MASTER NEWS: You noted earlier that universal automated communication has always been one of the strengths of Bihl+Wiedemann. This would have to mean that the current trend towards greater networking is actually a welcome development… Jochen Bihl: Yes, this is exactly how we see it. The challenge that awaits us is in fact already part of our DNA. We are meeting it with the corresponding decisiveness: confident, but not presumptuous. As ASi specialists we are not pioneers when it comes to industry 4.0. But we will provide anyone who wants to profit from big data analyses with the data they need in the best possible way. Bernhard Wiedemann: And one thing you should never forget: the greatest competition to our ASi based systems is still the cumbersome parallel wiring, and that will definitely have a difficult time competing in the intelligent factories of tomorrow.
ASi MASTER NEWS: Mr. Bihl, Mr. Wiedemann, thank you for speaking with us.