Bosch Trumps Its Own Industry 4.0 Fantasies With (Wait For It)… A Smart Factory Floor


It sounded, at the time, like a sci-fi vision of the future of manufacturing: that with a hyper-connected 5G factory, the only fixed assets will be the floors, walls and ceilings. But Bosch appears effectively to have trumped its own fanciful trade-show talk, from Hannover Messe two years back, by announcing a new “intelligent floor” product that brings even the factory floor to life, writes JAMES BLACKMAN.

News of the German industrial giant’s new flexible floor product is attended by a string of announcements about climate-neutral factories, smart picking solutions, and of course industrial 5G. All of these are timed for this year’s Hannover Messe, taking place next week, and forced online again by the COVID-19 pandemic. Bosch said Industry 4.0 has (almost) come of age in the decade since it “broke with convention”, at the 2011 version of the Hanover fair, to talk about factory “machines adapting to people”. It has led the Industry 4.0 charge ever since, it said.

Just quickly on the 5G stuff (because that is what seems to get people excited); Bosch is now testing 5G applications in around 10 plants worldwide, it said. The company has previously confirmed private 5G networks at its factory in Stuttgart-Feuerbach, with Nokia, and at its research campus in Renningen. Bosch, arguably the noisiest champion of 5G among the industrial set, was among the very first to acquire a ‘vertical’ spectrum licence from German regulator BNetzA, to run factory operations in local chunks of the 3.7-3.8 GHz band in Germany.

The Stuttgart-Feuerbach site is the company’s flagship Industry 4.0 plant. The firm said in November it will “gradually” deploy 5G in all 250 of its factories around the world. A new Bosch Rexroth innovation centre in Ulm, in the south German state of Baden-Württemberg, has also been announced, to “work on progressive approaches and business ideas” and to bring 5G-caoable products to market, for use in its customers’ factories, as well as its own. The Ulm facility will be open in the summer, as a “model [factory of the] factory”.

The company is looking to package the whole Industry 4.0 tool set, including 5G, for customers. Member of the board at Bosch, Rolf Najork, commented: “We offer a standardized ‘Industry 4.0 toolbox,’ which can be expanded and deployed as needed.” The toolbox will be extended to customers, as well. But the firm made clear it is an open solution, to work with customer preferences on digital hardware and software.

“If we want to exploit the potential of Industry 4.0, we have to move away from isolated solutions. Technical systems that work only within their own boundaries inhibit progress,” said Najork. Bosch Rexroth’s ctrlX AUTOMATION solution is billed as the “first open 5G-capable automation platform”. It supports 30-odd communication interfaces and standards, and works with industrial IoT apps from Bosch, third parties, or customer’s own development teams.

But the “intelligent floor”, to work in tandem with highly-flexible automated machinery, is the most arresting announcement from the firm, ahead of Hannover Messe next week. The company said Bosch Rexroth’s ‘smart floor’, developed with “various partners” and available to “pilot” customers, “makes the factory floor itself flexible and capable of adapting to the manufacturing process”.

It said in a statement: “It transports energy contactlessly, with load cells in the floor that ‘recognize’ people and measure the weight of plant and machinery. LED strip lighting indicates pedestrian and vehicle aisles that can be altered at any time. Communication between the systems and machinery is wireless as well.”

It also features an ‘integrated safety switching mat’ that automatically shuts machinery down in the event of unauthorized entry.

On the same theme of flexible factory automation, Bosch is using the Hanover show to show a modular manufacturing system, based on standardized hardware and software interfaces. It said: “The degree of automation is freely scalable, whether workers assemble parts at an assisted manual workstation, work together with a collaborative robot, or have handling and transport processes take place autonomously.” The company’s Nexeed software also offers “maximum flexibility”, it said.

Meanwhile, Bosch is using the event to demonstrate a self-learning robotic ‘smart item picking’ system, which uses image recognition to select and sort products delivered by transport vehicles without prior training. The “latest AI methods” help refine the system’s object recognition for each specific application, said Bosch. The solution can process “600 items per hour, with a 99 per cent success rate”, and is designed for labor-intensive picking tasks in intralogistics; it cited picking of “drugstore products… or spare parts” on conveyor belts.

As well, Bosch has announced a new Climate Solutions division to advise manufacturing companies on how to reduce carbon emissions. Bosch is drawing on its own experience, it said, having already declared its operations “climate neutral”. Its resident climate experts can carry out a CO₂ audit and present an initial master plan in four weeks, and bring results in three months, it reckons.

In Hanover, Bosch is also showcasing its Energy Platform software solution to control consumption of heat, electricity, and compressed air, which is being used at 120 Bosch plants, plus in 80 customer sites. It has announced an extension of the platform, as an AI-based energy management system called a Balancing Energy Network, to control and optimize energy flows in factories, and an Energy Platform

Developed for manufacturing facilities, Bosch is now targeting larger building complexes, including hospitals, shopping malls, and sports arenas.

Bosch said it has generated sales of more than €4 billion(US$4.76billion) “with Industry 4.0” since 2011 – and more than €700 million euros in 2020. It said over 120,000 machines and 250,000 devices are connected at Bosch plants, globally. Its Hannover Messe showcase, it said is about “open, 5G-enabled control technology and AI-based energy management for climate-neutral manufacturing”.

Najork commented: “We recognized the potential of Industry 4.0 early on and are pioneers in this field. Now we’re reaping the rewards.”

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