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Interview with Klaus Helmrich, Member of the Managing Board of Siemens AG and CEO of Digital Industries – August 2020

PLMportal/Die Digitalisierer: Let’s start with the economic impact of the pandemic on Siemens: How many employees in which areas were or are on short-time work?

Klaus Helmrich (photos © Siemens): Nearly 75 percent of ZVEI member companies in Germany currently expect business to remain at the same level or further deteriorate in the second half of 2020. And more than half of the mechanical and plant engineering companies that are members of the VDMA expect sales losses of ten to 30 percent in 2020. The German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) also expects the global passenger car market to decline by 17 percent in 2020.

Accordingly, our order situation has also clouded over during the year, and has compelled us to selectively introduce short-time work at some locations. In some cases, this is not only affecting production but also other parts of the company. This can lead to temporary fluctuations in employment.

The question of whether or how long short-time work is necessary depends on the specific circumstances for the various types of work and on the agreements reached with employee representatives at the individual sites.

In total, approximately 8,500 employees at Siemens’ locations in Germany are currently on short-time work. For the vast majority, or 85 percent, of the employees on short-time work, it totals about 20 percent of their worktime, or four days a month. To support employees, Siemens has increased the short-time work allowance to 85 percent.

Apart from home office for office work: Which tasks in production could be switched to remote? And what software and automation systems are used to do this?

Klaus Helmrich: At Siemens, our top priority was to ensure the safety of all our employees around the world, regardless of whether they are able to move their work to home office or not.

That’s why we developed specific concepts for workplaces in offices, factories, service and sales. In production, these range from safety measures regarding distances, disinfection and protective masks, to split shifts, additional break rooms and remote access work.

For example, engineering production plants is possible from home – using our automation platform TIA Portal in the cloud. Machines and systems can also be monitored from a distance, for example via the cloud and our MindSphere platform. We’ve been offering these solutions for a long time and in various applications such as for predictive maintenance.

Have customers also made such changes?

Klaus Helmrich: Of course, and we were also quick to support our customers in working from home wherever possible, for example with software solutions such as our NX design and simulation software. We’ve also provided the Mendix development platform free of charge, which enables apps to be developed quickly and easily without the need for in-house programmers. To engineer their production plants, our customers use the TIA Portal in the cloud – just like we do in our own factories.

Also, many services – namely up to 40 percent – can continue to function thanks to the digital and automated processes our service technicians use when there is restricted personal access to customer premises. Commissioning, maintenance or the repair of machines can also be carried out remotely. Our service engineers can access a customer’s machine or system “remotely” and provide the same instructions as if they were actually standing beside the machine. For example, to help a customer whose factory was closed to our service staff, as was the case with many others, we used remote virtual reality to supervise urgently needed service work. Using VR glasses, our engineers could instruct the customer’s employees so well that they were able to do the work themselves. Our sales organization has also very quickly made use of virtual channels, ranging from video conferences and webinars to online consulting and training.

Are these conversions that will perhaps become permanent processes similar to home office?

Klaus Helmrich: Of course. We can offer these solutions and processes to our customers on a permanent basis or have already been providing them for quite some time. In general, the corona crisis has accelerated digitalization and reinforced many trends. We are seeing increased customer demand for solutions that enable them to continue their business despite social distancing and travel restrictions. What’s more, these digitalization and automation solutions also help make their production more flexible, productive and efficient. These will always be basic requirements in industry.

Mr. Helmrich, you spoke elsewhere about a new tool that helps R&D directly link the results achieved in the home office with production. Which tool did you mean by that?

Klaus Helmrich: Our Sinumerik One fully virtual machine control system is the first completely digital CNC. For the first time, it provides a digital image of the machine control system that is completely identical to reality, that is, a digital twin of the system. It enables the machine builder to transfer his engineering process completely and seamlessly into the virtual world. Working on real hardware prototypes is no longer necessary. A large part of machine commissioning can now be carried out on the virtual model and only the final steps must be undertaken on the real machine. This leads to significantly increased flexibility and minimized risk in both planning and execution.

Using this digital model, the machine user can later prepare and test new workpieces virtually while the real machine is still processing the last job. And the user can also, for example, provide training on the machine’s digital twin, at any location. Physical presence on the factory floor is no longer necessary.

We presented this solution last year at the EMO in Hanover and its immense advantages have become even more obvious under the current conditions in industry.

What new developments in hardware and software have been made in recent months that Siemens is using to help industry give a boost to the digital transformation?

Klaus Helmrich: The accelerated digitalization caused by the corona pandemic obviously offers us an opportunity to continue supporting our customers in the best possible way. This is where our entire Digital Enterprise portfolio comes into play. For one, we offer major innovations such as Sinumerik One or the new, completely web-based process control system Simatic PCS neo, both of which we presented just last year. For another, we are continuously integrating cutting-edge technologies into our portfolio to enable even more comprehensive and in-depth use of data. With this holistic approach, we are bringing the next level of intelligence to product design and production and making both even more flexible. We are increasingly using cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing and industrial edge, industrial 5G and additive manufacturing.

Industrial 3D printing, in particular, has proven its value in the crisis since it enables fast, flexible and distributed production alternatives for urgently needed products. Shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic, for example, we opened our Siemens Additive Manufacturing Network to hospitals and healthcare organizations. We bring together suppliers and customers from the additive and 3D manufacturing sectors on this digital platform. It has enabled hospitals, doctors and others to report their urgently needed spare parts for medical equipment to 3D printing designers and companies specializing in 3D printing, thus overcoming supply bottlenecks quickly and without red tape. Our globally available network covers the entire value chain – from simulation and design verification to printing and service.

Our recently announced cooperation with SAP, where we are bundling our expertise in software for product lifecycle management, supply chain management and asset management, is equally forward-looking. This cooperation expands our approach to the comprehensive digital enterprise: We are creating a continuous digital chain from design to operation by linking product development with real-time business information and performance data from operations. This will help our customers further accelerate their digital transformation.

And, of course, we are also helping our customers quickly adapt to the new business conditions. Digital Industries has, for instance, developed a solution that warns manufacturers of infection risks in their production facilities. It’s an intelligent combination of simulation software, small portable tracking devices and communication technology. We use the system ourselves at a manufacturing facility in Houston, Texas. Pilots are running at other customers. They can use it to simulate and digitally optimize their production processes to make their work safer. The system measures the distances between workers and sounds an alarm in case of risks. The customers can also identify hotspots in their plant and, in an emergency, can trace contacts with an infected employee.

Is Siemens already feeling the effects of the digitalization surge – also in orders and sales – or is it foreseeable when the economy is back to full speed?

Klaus Helmrich: That varies greatly from industry to industry and also regionally. While the pharmaceutical industry and the food and beverage industry are currently stable, core industries like mechanical engineering, automotive and aviation have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic and are holding back on major investments due to the lack of demand for their products.

Regionally, we see slightly positive growth in China, while South and North America in particular are currently being hit particularly hard by the pandemic – with corresponding effects on the economy.

Overall, the market environment remains highly volatile and uncertain. Customers therefore need technologies that enable them to adjust their production facilities quickly and flexibly to momentary needs and also to adapt their production lines to different products. And this can only be achieved with a combination of automation, software and digitalization solutions and the integration of cutting-edge technologies, as we offer with our Digital Enterprise.

Which industries and areas of application have proven to be particularly vulnerable in the pandemic, and which are particularly well prepared?

Klaus Helmrich: Those companies and factories that already had a high degree of digitalization and automation and were thus able to adapt to the new circumstances very quickly were particularly well prepared. At our plant in Amberg, for example, the degree of automation is between 75 and 80 percent. As a result, we had hardly any drop in productivity there and were able to reorganize processes very quickly so that our employees were protected.

The pandemic has shown that it’s more important than ever to be able to respond to new and rapidly changing requirements as quickly and flexibly as possible. Individual industrial sectors have faced very different challenges in recent months. Some, such as food & beverage or pharmaceuticals, had to ramp up production very quickly. Others, such as the automotive and aviation industries, had to reduce or even stop production.

The necessary flexibility can only be achieved with digitalization and automation solutions. And I deliberately stress: digitalization and automation. Because the link between the two is crucial: simply being able to describe and simulate a process digitally is not enough. It must also be possible to implement this process directly in an automation system. Only this combination of the virtual and real manufacturing worlds provides the necessary flexibility. And this combination, in turn, is an important step on the path to fully autonomous production.

(Klaus Helmrich is also the author of a chapter in the new book on industrial AI by Ulrich Sendler published by Hanser Verlag: “AI Compass for Decision Makers“)