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Merkel sees Industry 4.0 in action at German PLC plant

23 February, 2015

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel has visited a Siemens factory where the company is introducing elements of Industry 4.0 into the manufacturing of PLCs (programmable logic controllers).

Merkel was briefed on the current status of production automation at the Amberg factory in Bavaria where items on the production line already communicate with the production machinery, and where processes are optimised and controlled via IT.

Production in the plant is largely automated, with machines and computers handling 75% of the value chain, with human workers being responsible for the rest. The only time that human hands touch the products is at the start of the process, when they place bare PCBs onto the assembly line. From then on, everything is run by machines and is controlled by around 1,000 Simatic PLCs.

The products being manufactured supervise their own assembly by communicating their specific requirements and production steps to the assembly machines.

One result of the high degree of automation is that the defect rate in the plant is just 0.0022%. “I don't know of any comparable plant worldwide that has achieved such a low defect rate,” says Professor Karl-Heinz Büttner, who heads the electronics plant.

The factory generates about 50 million items of process information every day, which are stored in a manufacturing execution system. “We can observe every product’s lifecycle down to the last detail,” Büttner explains.

Siemens says that the factory has made “substantial progress” along the path to a future where real and virtual worlds will merge even more closely, and where products will communicate with each other and with the machines to optimise their own production. In this future, it adds, factories will be far more flexible than today in producing individual products and achieving higher efficiencies.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (centre) at Siemens' Simatic PLC plant in Amberg with Professor Karl-Heinz Büttner, head of the plant (left), and Joe Kaeser, Siemens' president and CEO (right)

At present, the Amberg factory produces around 15 million Simatic products, in more than 1,000 variants, every a year, with one product leaving the factory every second for 230 working days a year. Since the plant began operating in 1989, its output has increased eight-fold without changing the 10,000m2 production area. The plant currently employs around 1,200 people working in three shifts –­ a similar number to those who worked there in 1989.

Siemens stresses that humans remain indispensible for roles such as developing products, planning production, and handling unexpected incidents.

“We are not planning to create a workerless factory,” says Büttner. “After all, the machines themselves might be efficient, but they don’t come up with ideas for improving the system.” Employee suggestions for improvements account for around 40% of the annual productivity increases at the Amberg plant. The remaining 60% are the result of infrastructure improvements, such as new assembly equipment being installed.

Speaking during Chancellor Merkel’s visit to the site, Siemens’ president and CEO, Joe Kaeser, declared that “Amberg is the best proof that high-tech and top innovations can sustainably secure Germany's position as an industrial location over the long term. Our electronics plant is a prime example of a digital factory, and shows that Siemens is already implementing key elements of Industry 4.0.”

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