As exhibitors at this year's Hanover Fair are showing, networked production is becoming a reality. But it's not yet clear which countries will benefit from what many are describing as a new phase in industrialization.
Robots in all shapes and sizes are nothing new at the Hanover Fair. What is new is how they are coming into closer contact with people, working together with them in confined spaces. And that's not all. Production facilities are becoming more efficient while being able to meet ever more specific customer needs. Tools and parts communicate with each other, allowing plants to be quickly reequipped for even the smallest production runs.
Together, these developments are being called Industry 4.0. It's a term meant to show how industry is experiencing its fourth revolution - following the invention of the steam engine, mass production and the use of robots in production.
But it's far from clear who will come out ahead in this new industrial era. Will the Chinese become the world's largest supplier of machinery, pushing the Americans into second place - or will it be the Germans?
The race hasn't been won yet
Philip Harting sits on the board of his family's company. Harting Technology Group builds electrical connectors that link machinery, plants and equipment. He says while the Americans are very good at software development and IT, Germany is strong in production and automation technology.
"If I compare this year to last, it's been a big step forward," Harting said. "Industry 4.0 is becoming more tangible. We can see production systems on display here that wouldn't have been possible even a year ago."
It's a viewpoint shared by many other exhibitors. Everywhere at the fair, there are complete production lines that take in raw materials and information at one end and produce a finished product - often customized - at the other.
The head of the VDMA German Engineering Association, Thilo Brodtmann, says this is just the beginning. "We will have to wait and see what standards emerge."
Brodtmann said it was his job to ensure German suppliers, with their knowledge of customer needs, would be very well positioned. He said there were many engineering companies "who talk about series production when they build five identical machines. And that won't work in IT - and you can't just copy the Googles and Amazons of this world. You need years of knowledge of the subject."
Success is slow in coming
And yet Germany was plagued by years of indecision - for example, infighting between ministries about responsibility for Industry 4.0. That now appears to have been overcome, but there's still no real alternative in sight to the US's Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC).
"No, we're not stuck. The race is on and we're ahead," said Ulrich Grillo, President of the Federation of German Industries (BDI). But, he said, Germany had to step on the gas, "to stay ahead."
Even so, Grillo added that he had yet to see real results. "The only success of Industry 4.0 is that it's on everyone's lips. But it's a huge opportunity for the German industry and the economy and so far we are pleased that it is being tackled and everyone's making an effort to move it along."
But Eberhard Veit, head of automation provider Festo, disagrees. His company is one of many German world market leaders that set the benchmark in the manufacturing industry.
Veit says German industry has not fallen behind its US competitors: "That is a completely false impression. We've been too busy to say that we've overtaken the Americans." Germany has top-notch equipment and technology, he said, "and we believe that we are still a nose ahead."
A digital single market
But Germany still has some homework to do, Grillo said. "We must be part of Industry 4.0." And that means lawmakers must provide the framework to allow common standards and Europe-wide regulations on data protection and data security.
"The Americans have an advantage. They just have to press one button and they have reached 315 million consumers. In Europe we have to tailor that to 28 countries," Grillo said. "We need a digital single market in Europe."
On the other hand, the head of the steel and technology group Salzgitter is unimpressed by the Industry 4.0 hype. Heinz Jörg Fuhrmann smiles when asked about steel and networked production. "They fit together perfectly," he said, because steel is a high-tech product. In hot strip rolling, thousands of pieces of information are input, evaluated online and transferred to process control.
"We may not have known it was called Industry 4.0, but we've been doing it for years."