Dr. Wilfried Schaefer at VDW speaks with Asia Pacific Metalworking Equipment News about the technology trends shaping the global metalworking industry. Article by Stephen Las Marias.
Dr. Wilfried Schaefer, Managing Director of German Machine Tool Builders’ Association (VDW – Verein Deutscher Werkzeugmaschinenfabriken e.V.), speaks with Asia Pacific Metalworking Equipment News on the sidelines of the EMO Hannover 2019 event in Germany, where he discussed the technology trends shaping the global metalworking industry.
Tell us about VDW and its goals and mission.
Dr. Wilfried Schaefer (WS): The German Machine Tool Builders’ Association has about 265 member companies, which is 90-95% of the German production chain for machine tools. We are a service organisation supporting our members, which are more or less small and medium size companies—they don’t have so many departments which do general activities, so we support them in statistics and market research, we support them in technical means, and we run research projects. We are very strong in standardisation in all fields of relevance for our industry.
On the other side, we are a trade show organiser. We are also supporting our companies outside of European marketing activities, running technology symposia, things like these. And in addition, we have founded a youth organisation in 2009, which is an independent legal body, but is managed by us. The target of this is to support vocational training—so, writing content for teachers, trainers and companies, and upgrading the content in the field of digital technologies—because not only in the academia level but also on the level of vocational training, people must understand what digitalisation is all about, where it comes from, what it means, and so on.
What technology or manufacturing challenges have you seen or are you seeing in the metalworking industry?
WS: We have a continuous technology development in all aspects of this value chain—the machines, tooling, measurement devices—which is a continuous ongoing improvement by the individual companies, so there is no specific trend in these product categories. Overall, we are all talking about the topic of digitisation—I think this is the major topic for not only the machine tool business but for quite a number of companies in the field of intelligent tooling, intelligent clamping, controller business, measurement devices where the data come from, and also the machinery.
Are there new technology applications that have emerged over the past year or two?
WS: Besides the topic of digitisation, you mainly see that everybody is trying to optimise his processes in various terms, so increasing productivity and cost reduction for the customer. Another aspect is new software-driven solutions for automation. This is a strong activity.
What can you say about 3d printing, specifically metal 3d printing? how do you see that impacting the metalworking industry?
WS: Maybe different from what you could have read from the past years, when people are saying that the car will be printed in the future. We do not agree on this. 3D printing is an interesting technology, offering new possibilities in complex structures for example; it covers a specific need or a specific solution that is easier to achieve than with classical production means. But it is one additional technology besides all the others. That’s our thinking. It has to be integrated in the value chain, which is in some cases, on industrial perspective, different from rapid prototyping.
It is not so easy to integrate 3D printing in the whole chain of product design, production with 3D printing, post-production with cutting, because you cannot assemble a metal 3D printed piece; you need post processes.
Where does Industry 4.0 fit and what opportunities and risks does it bring to the machine tool industry?
WS: Industry 4.0 is not all about machines being connected. Machines have been controlled digitally for many years, as we have a controller; and machines have been connected in flexible systems also for years now. Industry 4.0, in addition to what we do today—you have MES systems to get data out of your system, these are available five or eight years ago (since five to eight years?) —enables us to get new volumes of data that may give you additional information to better control the machine and the process, to predict situations in the machine or the process. This will offer machine tool builders the opportunity to, out of his knowhow of the machine system and of the process, develop new functionalities which are supporting the needs of the customer.
What is the importance of the umati standard for the metalworking industry?
WS: Industry 4.0 is possible to be realised already. You take a machine with a controller, then you connect it to the cloud, and you get all the data. The problem is that this connectivity between a machine system and a software or cloud system or platform is usually proprietary. You have a data connectivity with Siemens, one with Fanuc, one for Microsoft Cloud, and so on. In each and every connection you make, of course, the customer tells you what he wants. It needs additional effort. With umati, we want to realise a standard that will enable you to plug and play machines to the cloud—the machine talks umati, and the cloud understands umati.
What do you think will ensure the success of umati?
WS: Two major aspects are needed. First of all, the controller people and the platform people will offer OPC-UA server and OPC-UA client structures so that you can upload umati easily and connect. This is important and I think we are on the right track. At least on the side of the controller business, around 80 to 90 percent of the capacity of controller producers are within the umati project.
On the other side, of course, it is necessary that the machine tool producers all over the world agree on this standard because it cannot be a German or European standard; because then we will have a European standard, a US standard, and an Asian standard—then again, this will be kind of proprietary because then, some customers would use this one, others would use another one, and still others would use a third one. Therefore, it is important that on a wide, broad base, umati will be realised and integrated in all (their) projects.
What technology developments should manufacturers look out for in the next year?
WS: We have to mention digitisation, because as people talk about Industry 4.0 for quite some time now, you really have a feeling that it has been on the shop floor and has already been integrated. But there is still a lot to do, and a lot of possibilities to take; and these possibilities are different depending on whether you are a component producer, or tool producer, or you are a machine tool builder; it has to fit in the strategies. That’s why I do not see an overall answer to this.
On the other hand, aside from digitisation, there is a transformation happening in the automotive industry. Therefore, those companies who are delivering solutions into the automotive industry have to really look at this and make sure that they adapt their production solutions to the upcoming needs of the customers.
What are the opportunities for growth that you are seeing in Southeast Asia?
WS: They are continuously developing; asking for more sophisticated production solutions. This is also driven by—which is different from country to country—the strategies of the governments supporting industry clusters and industry sectors. In those areas, we see a lot of development in automotive supply, like in Thailand; we see similar developments in electronics production in Vietnam, for example; and so on.
There are different strategies and different developments in these countries; but overall, there is the continuous growth of industrial production.
What is your outlook for the metalworking next year?
WS: The problem is that it is difficult to predict at the moment, because we have influencing factors that are out of, let’s say, classical possibilities to predict future developments. Of course, we usually have some 10-year cycles, but it’s always a question of how strong these cycles are; and what the influencing factors are. At the moment, a very strong influencing factor besides enough capacity is the free-trade problem that we have. This free trade problem, or trade war, whatever you will call them, is between the two largest consuming markets—China and the US. And these consuming markets are consuming production technologies themselves, so this, and other countries as well, are influencing the investment situation overall.
We have to wait until some politicians have, let’s say, better strategies than the current ones. In Europe we have a similar situation with the Brexit, we have a similar situation with the sanctions in Russia, so there’s a lot of political uncertainty, which is influencing our sector. This is one aspect.
The other aspect is the overall transformation of mobility. Currently there is some uncertainty as to how to invest and what to invest in depending on the strategy of the drive solutions–maybe just pure battery, maybe fuel cell, or it might be something else. If these strategies become clearer, then investments—because new car models have to be produced—are going to come up again.
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