Hannover Industry Fair is on this week. The industry celebrates itself; highlighting the significance of automation in production lines, the progress associated with robotics and electronified production lines.
Here, automation does not only mean that there is a simple computer that controls a machine tool and not that there is a group of networked robots working in a coordinated manner. The engineers at the fair think bigger: Complete integration from the sensor to the corporate mainframe and back to the final controlling element, across all diverging systems and bridging all network architectures, that's the big picture. Only this total integration of factory floor, enterprise resource planning and perhaps stock-keeping or customer relationship software systems can generate the synergies and unleash the productivity needed to persist in today's global markets with their cutthroat competitiveness, the vendors are telling us.
If only the world would be so simple. The "digital factory" is more a vision than a manageable system. Instead of end-to-end integration it consists of thousand islands. Engineering department, process engineering, production planning, the machinery control, stock monitoring software, all with their own and in many times incompatible data formats. For lack of interfaces and universal data formats, engineers all too often have to transfer data from one program to another one via copy-and-paste from one window to another one. Media discontinuities, data format mismatches and data losses are the inevitable consequence.
According to a study from Software-Initiative Deutschland presented at the Hannover fair, this situation leads to a financial damage of 10 billion in Germany alone. Exaggerated? Perhaps. But the coexistence of dozens incompatible data and information islands is certainly the biggest obstacle for end to-end-automation in production environments to become reality. So far, no Java, no XML has changed this. I accept any bet that this won't change in the foreseeable future.