Industry 4.0 – Polish ICT supports German industry

Writen by: Jakub Bernadowski

Published on December 10, 2020

10 min read

Photo of a phone.

In recent years, the term industry 4.0 has become a very popular slogan in the IT environment. However, as is often the case with buzz words, it concerns a number of services and solutions that had their origins long before the term was first used. Experts dealing with IT solutions for industrial companies and factories were developing technologies in the field of hardware and software long before 2011, when the term industry 4.0 was coined. We were able to talk to one of them. Let us introduce you to Jakub Bernadowski, CTO at Alfa-Net, a Wrocław-based software company that has been cooperating with German production companies for over 15 years.

What else are we going to find out from our interview?

  • How to understand the term “Industry 4” and whether it has not become another buzzword of the IT industry?
  • What good business cooperation with large German is based on and how to take care of it?
  • What is the future of the ICT sector based on solutions for the industry and what factors influence it?

Part 1 – what is industry 4.0?

Photo of Jakub Bernadowski
Photo of Jakub Jarosz
Jakub Bernadowski - Chief Technology Officer at Alfa-Net . Jakub Jarosz - Coordinator in ITCorner.

Jakub Jarosz from ITCorner [JJa]: Hello Jakub. Today we are going to talk a little bit about Industry 4.0 but mainly I want to ask you about the problems that they solve solutions offered. But firstly, what actually is Industry 4.0 in your opinion? What areas does it refer to? Is it not just another buzzword of the IT industry?

Jakub Bernadowski from Alfa-Net [JBe]: As far as I know the term Industry 4.0 appeared for the first time in the German government’s high-tech strategy and was announced at the Hannover fairs in 2011. At that time, it was supposed to show the way for both IT and the Industry, to set some strategy for cooperation. Industry 4.0 is a very broad term so I hope I will not oversimplify it, when trying to briefly describe it – it covers such areas as advanced robotics (autonomous, cooperating industrial robots), additive manufacturing – involving 3D printing for prototyping and customisation, augmented reality – displaying of supporting information for maintenance and logistics or simulation and digital twins – creating factory models for testing and optimisations based on real-time data. Additionally, you can find Industrial IoT and M2M communication, smart sensors (CPS – cyber-physical system) – networks of machines and sensors allowing machines to communicate with each other as well as cloud computing, Big Data and Analytics – allowing the harnessing of cloud computing power, to store and analyze big volumes of data, without building huge data centres inside a factory. And of course, AI – for analysing data and making autonomous decisions in real time. So, as you can see Industry 4.0 is in fact a very important but roomy term.

JJa: It is a lot even for somebody who works with IT companies on a daily basis. When it comes to someone from outside the industry, I can only imagine how overwhelming it can be.

JBe: What makes things worse about this topic is that since the term appeared, lots of IT companies used it to describe their solutions. And in general it was fine – if somebody was offering e.g. smart sensors, it was part of Industry 4.0. But on the other hand, when people are googling Industry 4.0 solutions for their factory, they would find thousands of pages not related to your particular interests. So, in my opinion it has become a highly overused term and I find it much better to describe the offered solutions, than to put them into that bucket.

JJa: So, let us focus on these solutions, as I’ve learned from your company history, Alfa-Net provided such [from a broad range of industry 4.0] services already in 2002. Can you tell us more about the nature of those projects?

JBe: Alfa-Net has been involved in development of Machine Condition Monitoring Systems since 2002. We worked with Siemens A.G. on CMS X-Tools and around 2006 I recall implementations of this system in the newspaper printing industry. The company who delivered machines to print newspapers had equipped them with X-Tools, which allowed them to be used for remote monitoring and detection of failures in a network of printing factories. The whole process was possible from a single headquarters, where operators could see live data coming from these factories on four big screens. Sounds like Industry 4.0? And this term was not yet known at that time. Maybe that’s why I look at Industry 4.0 more as the next stage of factory evolution and maybe less as the next revolution – although I can imagine, that for some factories the changes may be revolutionary.

JJa: I think this is highly distinctive for people talking about the ICT industry. If they are not closely connected to technology, they tend to think that Industry 4.0, Blockchain, and VR came about out of the blue. But it is an evolutionary process. Could you explain the specifics of this kind of solution from the Industry 4.0 area, especially as it concerns your solutions? What is Alfa-Net doing when it comes to Industry 4.0?

JBe: We’ve started to work with industry and we still are mostly focused on software for industry. Beside condition monitoring, collecting and analysing data from various devices and sensors, we’ve also realised projects from areas of traceability, involving usage of RFID (Radio-frequency identification) technology. Recently we’ve become Zebra partners and are enhancing the range of supported hardware to include the newest Zebra products.

From our Industry 4.0projects, it’s worth mentioning  SPEdit. This is a configuration, control and monitoring system, which allows the programming of custom microcontroller-based automation systems. Schell GmbH, a machine manufacturing company, uses this software & hardware solution to control their devices. They invented and produced machines, which take over such tasks like assembly of electronic components. Our latest achievement in this project was the  creation of a smart microcontroller, which when mounted on the machine was not only executing controlling sequences, but also monitoring and reporting all error states via the network.

JJa: So basically you are collecting and analysing data to, for example, find errors that a worker in the factory is not aware of, what other solutions do you provide?

JBe: In the area of traceability, we have created a luggage monitoring system for airports, called IoT4Air. Using RFID tags and a network of RFID readers each piece of luggage is tracked and airport staff are notified, if any luggage is lost or misplaced. Each RFID reader in this system is a standalone smart device, capable of dealing with failure of the central microservices server, so it works autonomously and collects data until it is reconnected to the network.

But our biggest adventure with Industry 4.0 is the development of CMS X-Tools and taking part in the evolution of Siemens Cloud solution MindSphere, which includes the younger brother of CMS X-Tools Professional, a service called MindConnect Edge Analytics. X-Tools started as a condition monitoring system, capable of detecting various machine failures using vibration analysis.

JJa: I can understand the purpose and how the IoTAir works, but where exactly is CMS X-Tools used?

JBe: Over time it has found its place in numerous factories and businesses – to name just a few, in automotive it is monitoring car door presses, in harbours it is monitoring cranes, in airports it is monitoring luggage carts. Beside the development of this system, we also started its implementation on-site, focusing mainly on the support of maintenance staff in preventing unplanned factory downtimes, enabling remote work and machines’ condition assessments.

 

A public task co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the competition “Public Diplomacy 2020 – a new dimension”.

Part 2 – cooperation between Polish ICT and German production companies

Alfa-Net Luggage tracking system
Luggage tracking system.

JJa: I guess production companies from Germany are the core of your client’s portfolio. Germany is famous for its industry, and it is one of the largest economies in the world. How long and with whom have you been cooperating, what were the challenges? How did this story start?

JBe: It started in 2002 and as it often starts, with personal connections and recommendations. Our CEO Andrzej Sobański got an opportunity to build up a team of developers, who would help on a starting project – X-Tools, created by Siemens A.G. This team of a few developers, together with our CEO went to Germany for a few months, to work together with the team which was already etablished on their side. After a few months of hard work we managed to build up such a position, which allowed us not only to return to Poland and work remotely, but also to take most of the software development tasks of this project onto our shoulders.

It wasn’t easy at first. We had to learn lots of procedures, prove the quality of our work by passing strict code reviews, prove the quality of our management with ISO or CMMI certificates. At that time, it was sometimes difficult, but I can see that these lessons still pay off today. Since that time, we’ve realised several other projects for German customers and I have to admit that quality was always a very important value.

JJa: I can see it was a challenging time in terms of learning your client’s business and regulations. What about language? Was it an obstacle?

JBe: It was not that bad, but for sure this was a new experience for us, to work full time in a foreign language. For some Polish IT companies, lack of German language knowledge is the barrier, which stops them from even trying to work with German companies. This of course can be an issue sometimes, but I have to say that currently, when teams are often international, the majority of communication and documentation is in English by choice and the official project language is also English. In my experience it is also easier this way for both sides. When we are communicating in a language, which is not our native language, we usually tend to use easier and more straightforward communication – this simplicity is often the key to good mutual understanding.

JJa: You mention that you visited your clients in Germany. Is it essential to get to know each other better for a successful business?

JBe: In my opinion it is very important to build good relationships. This mutual understanding and trust is often key to keeping cooperation going for years. We’ve been working with Siemens since 2002. We’ve had ups and downs, we’ve had the project moved to different departments, different cities, different management, but with our experience in this field and thanks to keeping good relations with the team and management, we’ve managed to stay on the project and we keep contributing to its success. We value very much the personal relations with the team in Germany and Austria and we enjoy every opportunity to meet.

 

JJa: Let us go back to your solutions. Your software is mostly used in the field of the broadly understood Industry 4.0. How do you work with clients in Germany, what is the impact of the current pandemic situation? In the end, if you think about the factory, do you picture yourself in a big building on the side?

JBe: When working with big companies, this has not been an issue. We are cooperating with R&D departments in Germany, we are able to work online, often even connect on-site to the factory in order to diagnose issues. Our solutions are often from the start working inside Virtual Machines, so from the very beginning remote connectivity is possible. Using encrypted VPN connections, we can do it reliably and securely. We are introducing remote access to customers, so we have ways of doing our job remotely. With smaller companies it’s often a bit harder and we used to spend some time on-site with them. But current Corona times have shown that even in such cases remote work is possible to a large extent. For tasks which are not doable remotely it’s often possible to find a skilled person at the customer’s or partner’s side, who when trained a bit can do some work for us. Things, which earlier seemed impossible, turned out to be doable, when closed borders forced us to focus on solutions.

JJa: How do you see the trends in the development of your further cooperation with production companies from Germany?

Currently we miss the face-to-face meetings with our customers, our co-workers. It is also not that easy to do any hardware related implementations, without visiting on-site. But I also can see a positive change – we’ve learned to work online more efficiently, we’ve learned to resolve issues remotely. Also, the industry has learned that there is a need and often there already is a possibility, to do a lot of tasks online. Young people coming to production are used to technology, they already have it in their DNA, so to speak. It’s much easier to discuss with them about implementing new solutions. At the same time the technology becomes more and more mature. We are getting better hardware to implement our solutions on, we are seeing machines already packed with sensors. The Industry 4.0 understanding will grow, when more and more companies will progress with digital transformation and others will have a chance to read or see their success stories.

To be honest, the way I see it, is that every factory will sooner or later either have its own IT department, or will closely work with some IT company. I remember the words of our first product manager in the X-Tools project – first we need to collect the data and when we have it, we will start to analyse what it tells us. And here I see the chances for the biggest revolutions in industry. Nobody will tell up front what this data can tell, but when it gets collected and analysed, the relations found in this data can surprise us. When we have traceability of each produced piece, we can track its history and find relations between failures of the end product and a production parameter . We can pin-point the reasons and eliminate them.

JJa: So, it is important for production companies to collect data because they may have no idea what they can discover if they start a proper process of collection and analysing.

JBa: Yes, finally I would like to encourage Industry to work together with IT, together take the steps of digital transformation and let the results of this work really turn out to be the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

 

A public task co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the competition “Public Diplomacy 2020 – a new dimension”.

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