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2021, German Edge Cloud (GEC), the merger of three start-ups, became a Friedhelm Loh Group company. From the beginning, GEC was a member of the Gaia-X and Catena-X consortia and is actively involved in important lighthouse projects of the Industrie 4.0 platform and the European Union.

With the presentation of the ONCITE Digital Production System (DPS) at Hannover Fair 2022, GEC appeared for the first time as a provider of a novel solution for digital manufacturing and brought movement into the previously known world of industrial software. Monolithic Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) got competition from a modular solution based on cloud-native microservices.

Andreas Zerfas, my interviewee for this post in the background series on Composable Software, is CTO Digital Industrial Solutions at German Edge Cloud. Previously, he was Vice President Product Management at iTAC, the provider of typical MES software whose founder Dieter Meuser is now CEO of GEC. Andreas Zerfas is also Release Train Engineer in the Automotive Network Catena-X since August 2021.

Ulrich Sendler: Mr. Zerfas, at the Hannover Fair 2022, German Edge Cloud opened a big barrel with ONCITE DPS. Until then, the experts were convinced that the issue of digital production control was settled with the well-known MES solutions. Now you have already received two awards with ONCITE DPS. Which ones were they?

Andreas Zerfas: One, the Industrie 4.0 Award 2023 in the Smart Factory category, we received together with Rittal from Operations Consulting ROI Efeso. The other was the Factory Innovation Award 2023, category Industrie 4.0 in Practice, offered by the Center Industrie 4.0 of the University of Potsdam, in cooperation with the Berlin publishing house GITO Verlag. The laudatory speech said that the prize could be seen as something like the Oscar of the industry awards. Both awards say: We are not riding a theoretical wave with Powerpoints, we show in industrial practice what is actually feasible with our solution. This is what distinguishes our approach overall.

Andreas Zerfas, CTO Digital Industrial Solutions at German Edge Cloud (Photo GEC)

Ulrich Sendler: The ONCITE DPS was implemented, among others, in the new plant for compact enclosures of your sister company Rittal in Haiger. Can you use this example to explain what specifically is different with this system?

The Transparently Conncted Factory

Andreas Zerfas: At the Rittal plant in Haiger, we connected production lines, robots and other equipment for manufacturing the enclosures and housings to the ONCITE DPS in a very short time, for which we built a cloud infrastructure with our own hardware. On this basis, our software solution now enables transparency of factory data with a level of continuity that we have never had before.
This transparency and connectivity includes plants, logistics, ERP, PLM, CAD, as well as maintenance. The metrics are consistent and clear, presented in near-real time, and therefore decisions can be made quickly.

On large dashboards, the transparency of the new production control is visible to everyone (Photo Rittal)

The digital twins of production facilities and manufacturing show very precisely on dashboards in the halls where which production step is currently running in which quality or not running, i.e. where maintenance has to take action instead or is already active.

The system and its infrastructure are as flexible as cell phones. Because the basis is also pure web technology, software as a service on an infrastructure as a service, even if the ONCITE DPS can be operated on its own hardware. It is not a monolithic system with fixed functions and data models.

Ulrich Sendler: You allude to the possibility of using the solution on another cloud platform. Do you already have practical experience with this?

Andreas Zerfas: We are currently implementing this in various customer contexts, for example with a private cloud solution from one of the hyperscalers, in this case Amazon Web Services (AWS).

We have been a certified partner of AWS since last year. For one of our customers, in turn, we support the implementation on the Microsoft Azure platform, which is preferred and operated there. We can offer our Digital Production System on any cloud platform. It is a modern software solution that does not require on-site hardware.


Ulrich Sendler: How does this platform independence work technically?

Andreas Zerfas: We deliver the infrastructure for ONCITE DPS as script code, which is called Infrastructure as Code (IaC). Then it has to be adapted to the respective cloud platform in order to serve its interfaces, the Application Programming Interfaces (API). On the one hand, the process is standardized worldwide as a REST API method. On the other hand, we use OpenShift from Red Hat, the technology supplier that now belongs to IBM and supports all major platforms. This saves us from having to make individual adjustments and we only have to consider OpenShift. With OpenShift, Red Hat offers us a suitable target platform for our ONCITE DPS. Nevertheless, there are of course still differences between the platforms, which is why we did not aim for certification for all of them at the same time. The order will ultimately be determined by customer requirements.

Ulrich Sendler: So the new system has helped a lot to realize a highly automated production in the new Rittal plant in a short time. Does the automation of production remain the core of the solution?

Andreas Zerfas: During the application, other issues have already become apparent that can be addressed with it. At the end of last year, for example, we started to record the energy consumption of the paint shop on the same platform in Haiger. What is the relationship between products, processes, quantity produced by number and surface, and energy consumption?

For this purpose, the system will provide data from electricity, gas, water, as well as any energy sources. And we are in the concept phase with Rittal Digital Operations to move on from this energy monitoring to a real energy management system. Of course, this could also be applied to any other area of a factory.

There was another approach with Rittal IT: Instead of a new development of our own OT management software RiZone, the RiZone OTM Suite, i.e., an operations technology (OT) management for data centers, was developed on the ONCITE DPS platform, which also works well.

Energy monitoring as a new app of the ONCITE DPS. In the future, the consumption data of all energy sources can be retrieved here in near-real time (Photo Rittal)

Ulrich Sendler: If the practical results are so good, you would expect a real run on the system. Does that correspond to reality?

Andreas Zerfas: Our industrial solutions offer the possibility for a fast connection of production sites to the ONCITE DPS. In this respect, it is very helpful that we can show a great success in Haiger.

At the Hannover Fair 2023, we were able to present many practical use cases of the RKS Haiger live and thus arouse a great deal of interest. This is also due to the public attention, for example through the industry awards, as well as the ecosystem around the solution or our partner network. When the German head of our partner IBM comes to our trade fair booth in Hanover, this creates special attention.

Overall, we are dealing with the introduction of a new IT solution approach. It doesn’t take years for a customer to make the decision to buy and implement after the initial meeting, but it does take some time. That’s why we focus on proving how well our approach works in a short time, both in-house and in actual customer installations. To do this, we also offer interested parties the opportunity to carry out a proof of concept. We are convinced that this will help us grow.

International Standards And Openness

Ulrich Sendler: The success of Internet and cloud technology is based on international standardization and openness in principle of the systems involved. One example is the REST API method you mentioned instead of 1:1 interfaces. What role do openness and standards play for German Edge Cloud?

Andreas Zerfas: A very central one, and that is why we have been active from the outset not only in the European GAIA-X initiative, but above all in the Catena-X lighthouse project, with which the automotive industry is driving forward the digitalization of its very large supply chains worldwide. The connector we use to plug our DPS into this data space, the ONCITE Connectivity Gateway, is designed as a data-sovereign interface. Our ONCITE DPS was the first solution ever to be certified for Catena-X.

In the meantime, we are also able to offer a hardware quasi as a plug, with which companies can participate in the project without much effort. Incidentally, we are also participating in the planned Manufacturing-X funding project, which is intended to apply the Catena-X data room and data usage rules to all other manufacturing industries.

With the ONCITE Connectivity Gateway, you can also see how standardization works today. Catena-X’s rules for connectors are based on the Eclipse Dataspace Connector (EDC) and Asset Administration Shell (AAS), but in fact go beyond them because functionality that was needed but not foreseen became apparent in practice. The additional core functions required will be implemented gradually for the Catena-X project.

It is very important to be involved in such standardization processes as directly as possible in order to be able to quickly align one’s own development to them. Catena-X is one of the few funded projects that is really moving forward. But of course, the lowest common denominator is what standardization is focused on here as well.

Ulrich Sendler: Last year, Prof. August-Wilhelm Scheer and Prof. Friedhelm Loh agreed on a strategic partnership. So Scheer PAS is also an important partner alongside IBM and Red Hat. What does this partner bring to the table?

Andreas Zerfas: We already look back on a long cooperation. Scheer PAS brings enormous expertise in terms of system integration, especially in the direction of ERP and SAP in particular. They have now raised this integration to the level of a modern cloud platform, which can be used to couple any systems with each other. And they bring with them their own low-code platform, which now also makes it easy for our customers to define workflows and develop or adapt user interfaces without programming knowledge. These strengths, combined with our industry expertise, add up to an offering that customers are unlikely to find anywhere else.

Focus On The Use Case, Not The Technology

Ulrich Sendler: The German Edge Cloud solution seems to me to be a very good example of the enormous potential of composable software or cloud-based microservices. Why is the technology used here not talked about much more?

Andreas Zerfas: The core of our approach, the modularization of software in containers, is not fundamentally new. For industry and its heart, manufacturing, it is still unfamiliar. But we don’t want to convince our customers and prospects with technology alone, but rather with practical success and better functionality.

On the other hand, cloud use in the manufacturing environment is by no means a given yet. After all, we are talking about absolutely mission-critical data. That’s why our implementations, for example in OT management of the data center, are currently rather offline scenarios.

One of the robot lines controlled with ONCITE DPS at the Rittal plant in Haiger. Here alone, approximately 18 terabytes of data are processed daily. (Photo Rittal)

We use cloud technology because it’s state of the art, but also because we can use the advantages it offers for our services. The fact that we can show how fast we are with this solution compared to a conventional software system is more convincing than a discussion about new terms.

The customer does not primarily want to buy technology. He is looking for solutions for his use cases. Only at the very end does the IT department come and check the architecture used. This is where we can convince them of both the use case and the technology.

And one more point: Today, everyone is dealing with a very high level of overall complexity and, at the same time, extreme time pressure. Rapid change is becoming the status quo. When companies realize that architecture can be part of the answer to this, the discussion about it will probably also be more intense.