20 Feb 2024

Marriages made in Hannover

The growing closeness of the worlds of IT, communications and automation was evident at the recent Hannover Fair, where the world’s IT giants had a substantial presence, and where a slew of co-operative agreements were announced. Contributing editor Tony Sacks reports.

Anyone who visited the recent Hannover Fair ¬– the world’s biggest industrial exhibition – cannot have failed to notice the substantial presence of some of the biggest names from the worlds of information technology, computing and telecommunications. Microsoft, SAP, Accenture, IBM, Cisco, Deutsche Telekom and Intel all had substantial stands in the Fair’s Digital Factory hall, while Amazon was promoting its Web services in its own inflatable pavilion nearby.

A few years ago, these companies would have looked out of place at an industrial exhibition, but they are now playing a key role in the digitisation of manufacturing. They have the expertise and the resources to handle the vast amounts of data that are a core element in the fourth industrial revolution. And traditional automation suppliers who do not have the scale, the facilities, or the experience, to store and process this data are increasingly joining forces with partners from the worlds of IT and telecommunications that do.

There was plenty of evidence of such partnerships on show in Hannover. There was also a flurry of announcements of new tie-ups between the worlds of automation and data handling, processing and storage.

For example, ABB and IBM announced a strategic collaboration aimed at harnessing the computing giant’s expertise in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and the Internet of Things, to unlock value from the data gathered by ABB equipment, both on the factory floor and in electrical utilities. The two companies plan to develop technologies that will help manufacturers to address issues such as improving quality, reducing downtime, and increasing output. These technologies will use data to take actions aimed at minimising inefficient processes and redundant tasks.

According to ABB CEO, Ulrich Spiesshofer, “this powerful combination marks truly the next level of industrial technology – moving beyond current connected systems that simply gather data, to industrial operations and machines that use data to sense, analyse, optimise and take actions that drive greater uptime, speed and yield for industrial customers.”

For example, ABB and IBM plan to use AI to help find manufacturing defects using real-time images captured by ABB systems on production lines, and then analysed by IBM’s Watson IoT for Manufacturing. Previously, such inspections have had to be done by humans, and were often slow and error-prone.

The partners say that bringing Watson’s real-time cognitive abilities to the shopfloor will help to raise production capacities, while improving accuracy and consistency. As parts flow through manufacturing processes, the technology will identify possible quality faults, not always visible to the human eye, allowing operators to intervene before the problems become serious.

“This important collaboration with ABB will take Watson even deeper into industrial applications – from manufacturing, to utilities, to transportation and more,” explains IBM chairman, president and CEO, Ginni Rometty. “The data generated from industrial companies’ products, facilities and systems holds the promise of exponential advances in innovation, efficiency and safety. Only with Watson’s broad cognitive capabilities and our platform’s unique support for industries can this vast new resource be turned into value, with trust. We are eager to work in partnership with ABB on this new industrial era.”

IBM is also working on a project with the German connectors and electronics manufacturer Harting on a project that uses Watson technology to process energy-consumption data from injection-moulding machines, in the cloud. The machines are linked to the cloud via Harting’s Mica (Modular Industry Computing Architecture) technology.

Mixed reality

Another giant of the IT world, Microsoft, had a vast stand in the Digital Factory hall where it was hosting demonstrations with partners such as Rockwell Automation, Beckhoff, Yokogawa, OSIsoft and Iconics. The Rockwell demo centred on an IoT-enabled carton-assembly machine built by the Italian manufacturer Cama. Wearing Microsoft’s “mixed reality” HoloLens headset, visitors to the stand could view information about the machine, control its speed using hand gestures, and inspect a “digital twin” of the machine operating in real time with the actual machine.

Rockwell was also demonstrating a “bot” called Shelby (based on Microsoft’s Cortana) which allows you to use spoken commands to request information about the health of machinery. The technology – which does not require a cloud or server infrastructure – links a mobile device directly to the automation system via Rockwell’s TeamOne app.

Another Microsoft collaboration – with Schneider Electric – is designed to accelerate the development of open IoT applications. At Hannover, they were demonstrating how customers can now gain access to multiple cloud-based applications from Schneider’s EcoStruxure architecture, via Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform. Like Rockwell, Schneider is using Microsoft’s HoloLens technology to offer mixed-reality functions for applications such as maintenance and training.

In a third collaboration, Microsoft is working with the Italian robot-maker Comau (owned by Fiat Chrysler) and the software developer Iconics to help manufacturers to improve efficiency and cut costs, using a combination of cloud computing, machine learning and mixed-reality presentations to provide remote monitoring and predictive maintenance. In a project called Comau DiWo (Digital Workplace), the companies are using the Azure cloud to process plant data with the goal of minimising downtime and pinpointing faults. Comau is also harnessing the HoloLens technology to control its Racer 3 robots, allowing users to interact with the machines, and with the data they generate, using gestures.

As well as partnering with Microsoft, Schneider Electric has also been working with the digital consultant Accenture to develop a virtual “Digital Services Factory” that will allow it to build and scale new offerings in areas such as predictive maintenance, asset monitoring and energy optimisation. Under a five-year contract that Schneider awarded to Accenture last year, the “Factory” collects data from millions of devices within Schneider’s own operations and at customers’ sites to speed the development of new services. The aim is to cut the time taken from an idea being born to its eventual commercialisation by 80%.

Another strong presence at Hannover was the enterprise software developer, SAP. It announced a partnership with the German-based (but now Chinese-owned) robot-maker Kuka which will result in the integration of Kuka’s robots with SAP’s Connected Manufacturing software and Leonardo IoT platform. As well as resulting in Leonardo-based applications, Kuka’s robots will be integrated into SAP’s cloud platform, helping users to monitor and maintain their installations. Kuka also plans to use SAP technology in the Industry 4.0 platform being developed by its start-up offshoot called connyun.

SAP also announced its participation in Mitsubishi Electric’s e-F@ctory Alliance programme. This partnership will allow Mitsubishi’s automation systems to work with SAP’s cloud platform, using the IoT functions of SAP’s software to transfer automation data to the cloud. The cooperation could lead to new IoT-based services, such as remote management of devices and connections, monitoring of production status, predictive maintenance and long-term analysis of factory data.

The partnerships announced at Hannover were not limited to the large American IT players. The Chinese networking and communications giant Huawei had a huge stand which included a demonstration of a pair of Kuka robots playing a drum-kit, with their movements co-ordinated via ultra high-speed 5G connections.

Huawei – a private company owned by 170,000 employees worldwide – announced a series of partnerships at Hannover, including a cloud-based predictive maintenance system developed jointly with GE Digital. The partners have integrated Huawei’s edge-computing IoT technology with GE’s Predix platform for the industrial Internet. This will allow rapid communications between industrial equipment and the cloud, supporting real-time monitoring of machine health, data analysis, and “smart” decision-making on maintenance issues.

Huawei also signed a pair of Memorandums of Intent at Hannover. One was with Toshiba and covered a collaboration to boost the deployment of NB-IoT (narrowband IoT) in smart factory management. The other was with Intel and covered a cooperation on high-performance computing (HPC), based on Huawei’s servers and cloud platforms, and Intel’s Xeon processors and Omni-Path Architecture. Huawei plans to build HPC Innovation Centres in China and Germany where the partners will be able to carry out joint initiatives such as optimising applications and technical training.

The partnerships and collaborations announced at the Hannover Fair are a sign of things to come as the worlds of automation, communications and IT become increasingly and inextricably intertwined.