Industry 4.0 – Smart solutions from a sensor manufacturer

China is one of the world’s leading nations in the field of digitisation, and that’s no accident. The Chinese government has been stepping up its investment in innovative companies and promoting digital key technologies. But Chinese entrepreneurs still have something to learn from German companies. How do German companies digitise production processes, and is it even worthwhile? How far along in this changeover are Chinese and German enterprises? Chinese executives tackled these and other questions when they visited ifm electronic GmbH in Essen in Summer 2018 as part of their manager training. The owner-managed company specialises in the production of IO-Link sensors that will fully digitise and monitor all production processes.

ifm electronic has been manufacturing sensors for monitoring corporate production processes since 1969. IO-Link sensors monitor and record the details of all the production steps and machine statuses, including retrospectively, and transfer the information to a database that keeps minute records of every production step even months after completion. The Chinese MP participants, mainly from manufacturing industries, were enthusiastic about the technology and engaged in extensive discussions about the pros and cons. They were especially attracted to the idea of fewer repairs and consequently less downtime on the machines. Ongoing measurement of all the production and machine data means that faults can be localised within seconds and immediately rectified. Some Chinese entrepreneurs were reporting downtimes as long as four hours, because first of all, the problem has to be identified. But with downtimes of just a few minutes, costs can be cut significantly, and switching to production with IO-Link sensors will usually pay off the first time a machine fails.

A lively debate ensued on the different degrees of digitisation in Germany and China, which offered interesting insights, and pointed up how topical the subject was in both countries at the moment. It is true that Chinese firms are often a step ahead of German ones on this point because of the greater support they receive. Yet many Chinese executives were still wondering exactly how it should be integrated into their businesses. The visit to ifm electronic gave them valuable new ideas for digitising production.

Participant Liyuan Wang from Mino Equipment was especially impressed by the visit. Her company manufactures machines and sells them worldwide. She is convinced that ifm electronics has solutions that will give her company a valuable competitive edge in global competition.