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If all is not mistaken, we are currently experiencing the transition from Industrie 4.0 to operational reality. When a “smart factory” was named as the goal when this initiative was publicly presented in 2011, it was – apart from model factories like the one in Kaiserslautern – still almost as theoretical as the famous cyber-physical systems that hardly anyone talks about today. But what is currently happening in factories is definitely a very real transformation to the smart factory. Automation is reaching a new level. It is no longer programmed. It is on the way to dynamic self-control with the help of data.

It is striking that the pioneers are neither the automotive industry groups nor the large IT providers that have fueled innovation in industrial processes with their software in recent decades. Rather, they are companies that have attracted attention with high-quality products that have made them global leaders in the industry.

Bosch Rexroth has made a name for itself with drives and control systems in modern automation. Rittal is one of the global market leaders for enclosures and modular data center units. Phoenix Contact celebrated its centenary in 2023 as a manufacturer of components and systems for electrical engineering, electronics and automation. Weidmüller became known primarily as a supplier of electrical connection technology and electronics. It is these four that have been causing a stir for a few years now, and not just at trade fairs: with ctrlX AUTOMATION (Bosch Rexroth), ONCITE DPS (Rittal, German Edge Cloud), PLCnext (Phoenix Contact) and easyConnect (Weidmüller).

These software systems are in-house developments. They all rely on cloud technology and microservices. The systems consist of container apps. Openness, modularization and standardization are key principles. What comes from the manufacturing industry here is composable software, which is preparing to make life difficult for legacy systems and bring them to an openness that is alien to them. First and foremost, this applies to standard software, which is marketed under the abbreviation MES (for Manufacturing Execution System).

Weidmüller at the SPS 2023 with the new automation operating system u OS (Photo Weidmüller)

Composable Software Versus Rigid Monoliths

MES was previously regarded as the most important tool for the digitalization of automated production. Now, systems developed in-house by the industry are coming onto the market that go much further in terms of digital automation than the old MES solutions. But above all, they have an architecture that is modern, infinitely scalable and so flexible that it allows agility in the practice of industrial production. This is precisely the area in which change was viewed particularly critically in the past and often preferred to be prevented. It was too dangerous for industrial value creation to change running horses.

But times have changed so much in just a few years that there is no alternative but to tackle a fundamental change exactly here. Energy is no longer as cheap and easy to come by as was considered normal before the war in Ukraine. The climate is no longer possibly on the brink of collapse, but requires immediate action, and that means a drastic energy transition in addition to higher energy costs. On top of this, society expects and therefore legislators are demanding new products and, above all, new ways of climate-neutral production from industry in particular.

How is this supposed to work with a type of digitalization where it takes one to one and a half years to have a change in the standard software executable? How can data be used in near-real time to control production if the software is unable to process such data? How can all components of a production plant be continuously monitored and controlled by those responsible as quickly as possible if each component has its own embedded software and is a whole technology generation away from the cloud and apps?

Microservices are also becoming standard in the industry

View of a Rittal production hall in Haiger controlled by ONCITE DPS (Photo Rittal)

These are the tangible reasons why the above-mentioned companies and their leaders have decided to take a different path with Composable Software. As I was able to see for myself at the Rittal plant in Haiger, the ONCITE DPS concept has been successfully implemented in practice within just a few years, is being used by the first partners such as Schuler and was the first system ever to be certified by CatenaX.

It is also only the demonstrable feasibility that ensures that the number of partners in the ecosystem continues to grow at Bosch Rexroth. And that well-known companies such as Dell Technologies, Kuka, Nokia and Wago now also rely on the ctrlX OS operating system.

Microservices, cloud-native apps and services have now also arrived in industry – with the expected delay compared to IT in general. That is good news. But this does not mean that the front against this architecture and technology and the immense inertia in the manufacturing industry has been broken.

The pioneers – Bosch Rexroth is an exception here – approach the market very cautiously. Just like industrial companies, where practical testing counts, and not like IT providers who like to market their features and functions years ahead of time.

And the users are also industrial companies – we are talking almost exclusively about a B2B market – and are used to looking very carefully at which new tools and methods they get involved with. It took a long time for them to install the long-available software systems on a broad scale and make them usable for their purposes. As we know, this almost always meant adapting them to their specific requirements through add-ons, changes and interfaces. Replacing this hard-won status of digitalizing their processes with new architectures, new technologies and new partners will not be a walk in the park.

But despite all the understanding for this situation, it is clear that the changes – in the world, the environment and in society – leave the industry no choice at all. The old systems and methods do not allow the implementation of what the industry must now tackle. The new systems do. The path to the composable enterprise, which Gartner signposted a few years ago and which Prof. August-Wilhelm Scheer now describes in his book “Composable Enterprise: agile, flexible, innovative” (Springer Verlag), can only lead via composable software.

The old systems must adapt. The minimum requirement is to support the Internet standards for executability and data exchange, i.e. the Application Programming Interfaces (API) standardized on the Internet. However, if they want to play a serious role in future development, they will have to undergo a major decomposition into apps and microservices. Not everyone may be ready or able to do this. But they are already no longer playing their old role. They are too rigid, too inflexible for the fast times, and there is no question of agile.

Debate too theoretical

The debate about the future of the factory is being conducted theoretically and quite apart from practical developments. As if there were a choice as to how the old systems from ERP, PLM to MES can be reorganized and reordered.

The readjustment of industrial digitalization tools no longer requires an automation pyramid, because the small, flexible microservices can be arranged into a process faster than the old systems can be changed. The new systems can also be easily implemented alongside and with the old ones. It will probably turn out that some of the legacy software will no longer be needed.

Of the long-standing IT market leaders, two in particular currently stand out: Contact Software began modularizing its own CIM Database PLM system over ten years ago and transforming it into a modern architecture, the Contact Elements platform. In its current state, the software is also available on the market as cloud software and successfully offers a pay-per-use license model.


Steffen Winkler presents the now 12 product lines of ctrlX AUTOMATION at SPS 2023 (Photo Sendler)

And at Siemens Digital Industries Software, the opening towards microservices is most clearly visible in the new automation platform Opcenter X, with which Siemens offers apps for Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM). Here, too, the automation of production is obviously the area in which the use of the new architectures is being driven forward.

Overall, the current development is encouraging. However, industry in Germany and German-speaking countries must continue to be actively encouraged to understand and embrace the new architectures as a solution to the major problems of our time. China will not wait to see if it does this successfully. The USA is already the undisputed ruler of the cloud, the internet and modern AI. If the industry does not see its current opportunity, it risks becoming a cheap supplier of hardware. It could then lose its core business of automation.