Products as individual as if they were handmade, but produced in a highly automated way – how is that possible?

by Ulrich Eberl

Our idea of the future, our vision, always proceeds from what is familiar to us, otherwise we cannot conceive of it. The ideas in science fiction unsettle and fascinate us, because they no longer show matter as an object utterly subject to human design, but rather as something in the throes of gaining an independent identity. Science fiction in today's digital age is generating visions of a post-digital aesthetic, which converge with the familiar ideas of street culture in images from the illustrators at Sucuk and Bratwurst.

The quiet, hesitating sound has something almost human about it. “We have here a rather unusual individual order,” says Kira, appearing as if from nowhere in front of the auto­stereoscopic OLED walls. KIRA – “Künstliche­Intelligenz für Robotik und Automatisierung” [Artificial Intelligence for Robotics and ­Automation] – appears as a gently smiling, self-confident businesswoman. In response to her hand gesture, a transparent cube, with sides around 120 centimetres long, rises in the middle of the multifunctional table: a holographic display in which 3D objects can be made to float freely around the room by laser control.

In the holographic cube, a vehicle on a scale of 1:5 is turning on its axis. Powerful electric engines drive it. The interior is made of surface-finished steel with 3D textures, while the exterior has chameleon paintwork which shows iridescent colour effects at the touch of a button. Then wings with tiltable electric propellers swing out from the car’s underbody. Seemingly effortlessly, the vehicle starts moving vertically upwards, the wheels disappear under the seats, the rotor axles turn – and the car has become an aeroplane which can travel up to 100 kilometres in the air.

A brief murmur in the display, and the view changes to the production halls: production cells and transport machines appear, as do autonomous robots and human “fire­fighters” who monitor the process and intervene if there is a problem. In the middle of the image, a piece of equipment appears which flashes brightly whenever laser beams touch fine metal and ceramic powder. This is where the extremely stable shape-memory alloys are created, which change their crystal structure when heated and cooled down. Supported at critical points by electrically controllable piezoceramics, they generate the forces for the flying car’s complex swing and tilt motions – the simulations show the details of this 4D printing as well as the continuous optimisation of the production processes, the supply chains and dates, the remote diagnosis and maintenance, and even the recycling at the end of the innovative vehicle’s lifespan.

The vehicle with personality
A scenario, perhaps for the 2030s? Not all the concepts of Industry 4.0 are completely state of the art yet, and futurologists are already thinking about the time after it. What will come after Industry 4.0? Which direction will industrial production develop toward?

The direction is clear: automated production of individual items. People want to live out their individuality, express their personality and be authentic. Brand manufacturers personalise their products; optional equipment generates millions of variations. With crowdsourcing and co-creation, customers become partners. They communicate design ideas and suggestions for improvement over the Internet and are thus directly involved in the development and production processes. In addition, there are increasing numbers of drive variants, ranging from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources and electric drives. In future, smart cars will communicate not just with each other but also with infrastructure. Mobility concepts are shifting more towards needs-based use, with sharing, leasing or mobility-on-demand solutions.

Autonomous electric taxis, summoned via a smartphone app or intelligent speakers, are a model for the city of the future, particularly considering the ageing population. By 2050, one in three central Europeans will be over 65 years old, and one in eight over 80. The number of over 100-year-olds is set to increase tenfold compared with today. Twenty four-hour availability of autonomous vehicles could ensure mobility and, at the same time, relieve traffic-plagued cities. Dubai is already switching to the third dimension with air taxis. By 2030, the United Arab Emirates aims to have transferred a quarter of its traffic to automated transport – on the streets as well as in the air.

Birth as a digital twin
Mass customisation, the connection of mass production with individual products according to the customer’s requirements, is a fundamental goal of Industry 4.0. But how should it look, the flexible factory in which humans and things talk to each other and link themselves up to become a smart factory? How can highly individualised products – in the extreme case, unique items – be produced in a short time, and also be highly automated, energy-efficient and environmentally friendly?

The production of tomorrow is more akin to a perfectly organised ant state with swarm intelligence than to the thoroughly timed planning of the past. Digitalisation encompasses the entire value chain on the basis of Industry 4.0, the intelligent combination of software, sensor, processor and communications technology to connect the virtual and real worlds. In the digital factory, the products first emerge as digital twins in the virtual world, drafted at the computer and optimised with the aid of adaptive algorithms. Their operation, their maintenance and even their recycling are tested before even a single screw really exists. Developers run through production processes virtually, from human movements to the interaction of the machines.

All the essential partners for planning and production are connected over the Internet, carry out changes in real time and discuss things with each other. Thanks to the digital twin, production employees are not left on their own later during real production, either. Using augmented reality (AR), they can superimpose detailed information, 3D data or short videos directly onto the real environment as assembly aids: for example, they can project these onto the vehicle bodywork and see them on their tablets or using virtual reality glasses. For optimally flexible manufacture, autonomous transport units bring the vehicles and the component parts to be assembled to production cells, where humans and robots work together. If a cell is currently occupied, the transport unit searches for another cell which is vacant and where a production step can be brought forward.

Smart workpieces talk to each other
In self-optimising production – the keyword being “Internet of Things” – communication from machine to machine is just as important as between humans and machines. Even today, there are apparently more machines connected over the Internet than people living on earth. And this number is growing by around 40 per cent per year. Every day, all kinds of devices – sensors, computers, smartphones – produce ten times as much data as is contained in all the books in the world. In factories, too, more and more workpieces are “smart” and are transforming into so-called cyber-physical systems – for example, by equipping every workpiece with a radio chip in which its individual product memory – its own identity, so to speak – is stored. Workpieces can thus exchange data with each other and with the factory control system. At every point they also know the status of their own processing and their next task.

In turn, not only people but also collaborative robots will work at the production cells in future. They will work without protective fences, hand in hand with people. Cameras with object recognition and sensitive sensors make them extremely safe: if they register any unexpected contact, for example at the arms or grippers, they can stop their activity abruptly within a thousandth of a second. Also, in future they will be able to store data such as body size or individual restrictions of employees – the machines will adapt to them automatically.

Materials with a memory
Then we come to advanced technologies for production. Previously, people forged, milled, drilled or casted. Today, using lasers in 3D printing, powder materials can be fused layer by layer, and objects with very complex dimensions can be grown – without detours, directly together with the data of the digital twin. This is already possible now, not only with quick-hardening plastics but also with metals and ceramics.

In future, 4D printing will also be possible – that is, materials which are merged together by 3D printing and which then take on an­other form in the “fourth dimension” of time, so to speak. This transformation can happen through heat, through humidity or via electricity. Particularly suited to this are memory ­metals: so-called shape-memory alloys, such as nickel-titanium, which take on a particular shape when warmed and then return to their original shape when cooled. Even artificial muscles can be built – for example, from electroactive plastics or twisted carbon ­nanotubes.

Machine learning: The key to Industry 5.0
Whether for the continual improvement of production processes during operation, the training of robots, the integrating of suppliers and customers or for finding the easiest possible way to operate machines, the smart factory of the future is unthinkable without the broad deployment of artificial intelligence (AI). This goes far beyond the digitalisation concept of Industry 4.0 – so far in fact that one could call AI the essential quality leap towards an Industry 5.0. With AI, programming will be a thing of the past. In future, machines of all kinds will be controlled by dialogues in natural language and via gestures: the factory employees will simply show the machines what they are to do, and will speak to them in the same way that they speak to smartphones and intelligent speakers.

In addition, artificial intelligence analyses the data from innumerable sensors and thus detects very early when problems occur with robots or with processes in the factory – often, deviations, irregularities or quality deterioration are indicated even before they actually occur. Thus, the AI systems can raise the alarm in time and recommend alternatives, which the human experts then discuss, prioritise and implement in dialogue with the machine.

In future, artificial intelligence will also conduct simulations in advance with the data from the digital twins and the information from the actual production environment in order to detect even those problems which have not previously occurred but which are conceivable and for which one should be prepared. And artistic creativity will also increasingly come into play: that is, the smart machines will make design proposals, combine product ideas and manufacturing processes, and continue to refine and improve them on the basis of the feedback they receive from people.

There’s no doubt: in ten to twenty years, a smart factory will be, to a great extent, characterised by autonomous machines and workpieces “with their own identity” which communicate with each other. But it is just as certain that people will continue to play an essential role in the factory of the future. And not just as “firefighters” when problems occur. They will also be controllers and thinkers, planners and deciders, creative problem and conflict solvers, guarantors of quality, safety and reliability, and decisive partners entrusted with demonstrating emotional and social intelligence towards their customers and suppliers. Far from becoming more monotonous, the tasks performed by people in the flexible factory of tomorrow will actually be more varied, more diverse and more exciting, and surely more appropriate to the “human individual” than traditional factory tasks were.

Kira, at any rate, is not a substitute for people. Just a means to an end.


Dr Ulrich Eberl completed his doctorate in physics at TU München (Technical University of Munich) and was Head of Communications for research and innovation at Siemens for over 20 years. Eberl was the founder and, for 15 years, the chief editor of the internationally multiple award-winning future magazine Pictures of the Future. He has also written several books, including “Future 2050 – how we are already shaping the future today” (2011) and “Smart machines – how Artificial Intelligence is changing our lives” (2016).

Sucuk und Bratwurst are a four-man design studio from Mainz, consisting of Alessandro Belliero, David Gönner, and Lukas and Denis Olgac. Inspired by the Internet, by speed and by all that sparkles, they were already doing free work, digital collages and 3D renderings which would probably be best described as post-internet art before founding their agency. Since 2014, their design studio has been known for their digital, three-dimensional works located between science fiction and tuning. They put on museum and gallery exhibitions and give lectures at art and design colleges all over Germany, as well as working for international sports brands, musicians and magazines.