The spiritual father of the Industry 4.0 concept received the CTU Honorary Degree in the Bethlehem Chapel. German computer scientist, Professor Wolfgang Wahlster, advocates technologies in his country and in the Czech Republic that bring the so-called Fourth industrial revolution into production. This consists, among other things, in the mass involvement of artificial intelligence in production.
Martin Tyburec, Czech TV: Professor, you are one of the spiritual fathers of Industry 4.0 or the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution. Please explain – this is a revolution from what to what?
Wolfgang Wahlster: We’ve gone through three revolutions before. First it was a mechanical revolution, then we developed electricity and we could start mass production, for example cars. The third one was in the 60s and 70s, when electronics and the first computers entered the factories. And now the fourth revolution is completely changing our understanding of industrial production. We are returning to what we call mass adaptation. We can produce products that are completely tailored to the customer. And this is only possible through the use of artificial intelligence technologies. Simply said, the emerging product that is being produced will tell the machines what to do and not the other way around. So that’s the revolution.
Martin Tyburec: Can you please give a specific example from a particular factory? For example, from a bicycle factory. How would it be produced today and in Industry 4.0?
Wolfgang Wahlster: Bikes are one example, but maybe even simpler are cereals. You can order what you want in your particular muesli via the Internet. Let’s say you want to have a mix with chocolate chips, cornflakes, some fruit and so on. The system is not programmed to simply fill the package that arrives. But the package has a chip on it and it tells the machine: please fill me with this and this and this. That means you can have millions and millions of cereal variations every day. That’s one thing. Another is that when there is a new trend, let’s say that people will want some new sweets in the cereal. So you simply put a new machine in the factory. When the first pack comes and wants the candy, the production goes on. This is called extremely flexible production. You can simply add one machine and keep going without a production break. Today, in your example with bikes, we always have to go through a transition phases in which we reshuffle the whole factory.
Martin Tyburec: What are the key technologies already developed for Industry 4.0 and what will scientists have to develop?
Wolfgang Wahlster: Today, I think, the Czech Republic and Germany are leading in this area. What is now a priority is communication between all machines, robots and people. And so that everyone will really understand each other. This is not simply an exchange of bits and bytes, but a real understanding of the meaning and context of the conversation. Because if the machines are not able to talk to each other – and so are people and machines – then the whole thing won’t work. Another important thing is machine learning. We have a huge amount of data from these machines and now there’s a whole new area of artificial intelligence to teach them new behavior without being programmed. This is already used in some factories, for example for so-called predictive maintenance purposes.
Martin Tyburec: You have vast experience with this technology at the German Artificial Intelligence Research Center (DFKI), but you have decided to support the Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics and Cybernetics and work with it. I am thinking, for example, of the RICAIP project. Why?
Wolfgang Wahlster: You can’t make a revolution in one country. You need more for that. The Czech Republic is ideal from this point of view because it has a very similar structure of industry. It is very strong in mechanical engineering and there are many factories.
Martin Tyburec: Also, the European Commission has funded the RICAIP project and other Industry 4.0 related projects. Why does Europe want to invest in industry? Hasn’t it actually moved the entire industry to Asian countries? Do we still need industry in Europe?
Wolfgang Wahlster: Industry 4.0 changes the game in the sense that it comes with on-shoring. So the production units that moved from Europe to Asia, as you rightly said, are now coming back. Why? Because when we manufacture the products in mass customization and directly tailored them to the customer, the consumer wants the thing very quickly. You can’t afford too long logistics chains, above all transportation. Therefore, it is cheaper to produce again in Germany or here in the Czech Republic. For example, three German factories that previously had production in Malaysia have now reopened production in Bavaria – because of Industry 4.0.
Martin Tyburec: As I understand it, we’re talking about robots doing all the manual work that people have always done. Therefore, there are always concerns about jobs related to robotics. Is this a real issue?
Wolfgang Wahlster: Not really. Right from the start, we were talking with the representatives of the workers’ associations when planning Industry 4.0, and in Germany they enjoyed Industry 4.0 very much. Because it is not the substitution of the workers, but the collaboration with the workers. We call these robots collaborative robots. For many tasks in the factory, the human is still the number one choice. We do the human-centric AI.