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Automatica 2023 took place in Munich from 27.6. to 30.6. The strong visitor turnout should not hide the fact that essentially the type of automation and robotics that has been known for decades was exhibited here and also sought after. But even if there is still an enormous amount of revenue to be made with it – the industry urgently needs digital, data-driven automation based on app technology. That was hard to find in Munich.

“The order books are full and are being worked off at record levels after the pandemic-related supply bottlenecks, and the industry is expecting a 13% increase in sales,” reads the press release from exhibitor IDS Imaging Development Systems at the close of the trade show. And even though CEO Jan Hartmann points to the role of AI as an “enabler technology” in the company’s own offerings, at Automatica the old familiar robot itself was the drawing card in every shape, size and function.

Exceptions such as Bosch Rexroth with its still quite young ctrlX  Automation offering or the Rittal subsidiary German Edge Cloud with the ONCITE Digital Production System were rather not the visitor magnets. Although they are among the spearheads of a development that is rewriting automation: App and cloud technology, with open systems such as Linux as the basis and REST API as the connection standard.

At the Kuka booth (photo Sendler)

Time for digital awakening in automation

I don’t know of any valid research on where industry stands on automation in this regard. The few percentage points by which energy efficiency and sustainability can still be optimized with the old methods of robotics will not be enough to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint to a sufficient extent, nor will they be enough to successfully counter the Chinese competition in particular. Even self-driving transport systems will do far too little to change this.

At Bosch Rexroth, the focus was also on the app platform ctrlX Automation (Photo Sendler)

For many years, industrial software providers such as Autodesk, Dassault Systèmes, PTC, SAP or Siemens were the suppliers of the technologies that enabled industry to overcome its challenges. At this stage of the digital transformation, they are not the ones who stand out. CAD, PDM/PLM and MES and others are part of the base from which the next step must be taken. For the truly fundamental transformation, and especially for the pace that is rigorously demanded in the process, this is not enough.

A new industry will probably emerge in the next few years. Its business field: development and production, distribution and operation of industrial AI systems.

The main area of application for the new AI is likely to be manufacturing and assembly in a wide variety of industries. Because this is where it will very soon be decided whether our industry, which still remains in Central Europe, and thus the industrial location, will be able to maintain its position on the world market.

In an article on AI, I referred to this type of system, of which there are only very few, as “head robots”. Like the old robotics manufacturers, head robots need to bring such AI, which is state of the art, for example generative AI like ChatGPT, to market on an industrial scale. No company, no matter how large, can do that by itself.

Whether and how quickly such an industry of head robotics emerges in our country will determine how things go.

If things go right and fast enough, the old robots will soon be able to work as fully automatically as those at the Rittal plant in Haiger for small control cabinets, whose production I was recently able to visit. There, 250 networked machines and robots are controlled by the company’s own Oncite Digital Production System.

View into the control cabinet production at Rittal controlled with ONCITE DPS and monitored in near-real time on the dashboard (Image Rittal)