Call Us an Industry 4.0 Company
Once upon a time, Advantech was a big industrial computer firm; today, it aims to become a major player in the Industry 4.0 trend.
Call Us an Industry 4.0 CompanyBy Elaine Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 564 )
Recently, leading industrial computer firm Advantech President Chaney Ho's ears have been buzzing. "Industry 4.0, Industry 4.0, Industry 4.0. It's incessant, you can't avoid it," he says.
A little over a year ago during a visit to the company's German branch, local employees kept chatting him up about Industry 4.0. In meetings with Siemens, a company client, discussion again turned to Industry 4.0.
After returning to Taiwan he watched a video on amazon.com's warehousing and logistics system, which "blew my mind," he says. His voice rising, he exclaims, "It really turned everything on its end for me! Over 100,000 robots sort merchandise by order and package it, then it gets sent out on a drone. The order is placed in the morning, and received (by the customer) the same afternoon."
For Advantech, which has been into the Internet of Things for three years, the robots, Internet of Things, and automated production that are all part of the Industry 4.0 concept, are not unfamiliar.
"The Industry 4.0 era is definitely on its way," Chaney Ho asserts. He has recently spent a lot of time thinking over how to bring Advantech into this gargantuan web, a web that will completely change everything.
Manpower supply will shrink in the future, which is a social issue the manufacturing industry will have to confront.
"It will be difficult for manufacturing plants to move in the future, or even to move production lines. Production must be flexible," says Ho. He knows very well that smart manufacturing is an irreversible trend, that it should not be seen as a crisis, and that it presents opportunities for Advantech.
Internally, operating on oneself
This opportunity is both internal and external. Internally, one gets smart; externally, you help others get smarter. Advantech took action quickly, establishing an industry consortium with the likes of the Institute for Information Industry (III), Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), and Hiwin Technologies Corp, to work together to take Taiwan's manufacturing industry toward Industry 4.0. "We are going to help everyone raise their international status together, and upgrade together," asserts Shuo-Hung Chang, ITRI executive vice president.
The first step in going about revolution is turning focus inward and putting one's own head on the chopping block.
Advantech is already at work on a six-month to one-year plant transformation plan.
After work, an Industry 4.0 book club gets going. Group members include production engineers, the automation team, CEO K.C. Liu, and company president Chaney Ho.
During working hours, engineers proactively go to the storehouse, then get to work fashioning an automatic materials transporter using leftover computer inventory, whilst others assemble sensors, edging closer to the new trend currently sweeping Europe.
In the future, plants must be able to talk and communicate with each other. Towards that aim, Advantech plans to link up plant facilities across the Taiwan Strait.
"Our plants will manufacture according to the Industry 4.0 model in the future," says a hopeful Chaney Ho.
Externally, help clients get smart
Each and every client is unique. Chaney Ho would like to use prediction and simulation to capture customers' hearts. "From the placement of an order, the plant's sensor collects data, analyzes the customer, and enables our regional customers and different demographic groups to deliver personalized products."
The Industry 4.0 wave sweeping Europe, North America and Asia marks an external opportunity for Advantech.
The company's Harley-Davidson case is a classic one of helping clients get smart. Despite running three production line shifts, Harley-Davidson – an Advantech client – is doing so well it cannot keep up with the market demand. Naturally, it cannot afford the losses incurred by mechanical malfunctions and production stoppages.
For some reason, Harley riders like to ride their machines at night, when their wheels glow in the dark.
This comes from the thermal pad, which must be made at a small angle, making production difficult.
Lu Wen-cheng, senior president of Advantech's Industrial Automation Enterprise Group, notes that in order to manufacture thermal pads that glow, machine tools must produce extensive vibration. "When that happens the machine tool is put under great strain and can break. If you can know in advance when that could happen you could prevent it, and you wouldn't have to wait for a flawed product to appear to know the machine is broken."
This issue was only fully resolved once Harley-Davidson began using an Advantech controller to monitor a German lathe. Now, Harley can monitor the machinery's parameters directly from the plant or from home to see if they are correct.
Both internally and externally, Advantech advances inexorably into the future, assessing its strengths and weaknesses and repositioning itself. At the Nuremberg Automation Fair last November, a female employee at the Advantech booth excitedly exclaimed, "Don't call us an industrial computer company anymore; we're an Industry 4.0 company."
Albert Huang, vice president of the Advantech Industrial Automation Group, enters the world's largest automation exhibition, where he sees unshakable giants like ABB, Schneider, Siemens, and Bosch.
"From the standpoint of automation, they are all formidable competitors with a large gap on us. However, from an IT perspective, they are all our customers," offers Huang from an alternate perspective.
Taiwan boasts strong IT assets. Using the power of IT, Taiwan can seize the opportunity to turn automated facilities into smart plants. In fact, Advantech played a role in automation solutions for ABB and Siemens.
"IT is a major player in Industry 4.0, too. The opportunity for Taiwan is in approaching from the IT side," observes Albert Huang, who jokes about having become almost totally brainwashed with notions of Industry 4.0.
Advantech subsidiary, LNC, has also jumped into the robotic control realm. For instance, the da Vinci robotic surgery adopted by hospitals uses an LNC controller. "Corporations must set themselves up close to trends, so that they can get on board as the wave surges." Chaney Ho calls on related Taiwanese firms to join forces and seize the Industry 4.0 wave that can be expected to swell for the next 20 years, reaching new economic heights.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman