US President-elect Donald Trump has spoken directly to Apple CEO Tim Cook about moving at least some of the tech giant’s manufacturing operations to the US, and offered tax incentives in return.
Apple currently does most of its manufacturing in China, through a Taiwan-headquartered company called Hon Hai Precision Industry, better known as Foxconn.
In an interview with the New York Times, Trump related the conversation he had with Cook, who was one of the tech company bosses who contacted the president-elect after his victory.
Trump told the NYT: “I got a call from Bill Gates, great call, we had a great conversation. I got a call from Tim Cook at Apple, and I said, ‘Tim, you know one of the things that will be a real achievement for me is when I get Apple to build a big plant in the United States, or many big plants in the United States, where instead of going to China, and going to Vietnam, and going to the places that you go to, you’re making your product right here.’ He said, ‘I understand that.’ I said, ‘I think we’ll create the incentives for you, and I think you’re going to do it. We’re going for a very large tax cut for corporations, which you’ll be happy about.’”
The huge picture
On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly pledged to bring back jobs to the US and rebuild the country’s manufacturing base. Although the US is still the largest manufacturing nation – after China – in the world, the perception persists that the sector is somewhat desolate.
The reality is that the US manufacturing industry – much like the manufacturing industries in all advanced nations – made millions of human workers redundant over the past few decades and replaced them with robotics and automation technology.
So, US manufacturing is as productive as it was in previous decades – it just uses technology instead of humans to reach those levels of productivity. Which means even if factories “move back” to the US, there’s no guarantee that they will lead to a significant increase in the number of jobs available for humans.
However, there is general agreement that the manufacturing sector, and industry in general, is going through a distinct developmental stage. Some are calling it “Industry 4.0”, or the fourth Industrial Revolution.
The first Industrial Revolution was characterised by mechanisation, the second featured electrification, the third computerisation, and the fourth is all about connectivity.
Whether you call it Industry 4.0, “industrial internet”, or “industrial cloud”, many experts agree that the adoption of newly available networking technologies will fundamentally change the manufacturing sector and many other industries.
During the “computerisation” phase, mechanical machines within factories were given “brains” in the form of computers, and became known as robots. And whereas robots were previously caged off with automated equipment, such as conveyors and so on, within “robotic work cells”, now those robots and all the other equipment can be connected using sensors and actuators to the computer, and of course the Internet.
This means that large, multinational companies which have manufacturing operations around the world can run all of their factories from one central location, with detailed operational data about every single piece of equipment at all of their sites, right down to the light switch.
And using artificial intelligence systems, they can then develop increasingly efficient and flexible production processes.
Huawei, the electronics giants, is developing what is calls a “deep learning network”, which will operate across all its production processes and provide data and insights to make running its sprawling enterprise more precise and economical.
Large companies such as General Motors have already created global networks, or clouds, through which they find maintaining machinery has become more efficient. At a company the size of GM, one minute of downtime can cost millions.
A cloud of your own
There are many other examples of multinational companies which are developing global industrial clouds, connecting all of their machinery and electrical equipment. Mostly they use either their own developers or bring in outside help to build a solution specifically for them.
There are, however, ready-made industrial cloud solutions on the market, some of which we list here:
- General Electric – Predix
- Siemens – MindSphere
- Schneider Electric – WonderWare
- SAP – Hana
- Bosch – IoT Suite
- Cisco – IoT System
- IBM – Bluemix
- Amazon – AWS Cloud
- Infor – CloudSuite
- Oracle – Cloud for High Tech and Manufacturing
- Industrial Cloud – IC
- Prevas – Industrial Cloud Solutions
- Microsoft – Azure
- Google – GCP
- Kuka / Infosys – Connyun
- Fanuc / Cisco / Preferred Networks – Field
- ABB – Ability
- Honeywell – Connected Performance Services
Some of the above list are specialist industrial cloud providers with hardware-plus-software solutions aimed specifically at industrial companies, but some are all-purpose cloud services which have components of what is required – either hardware or software or both – but not in a ready-made package for industrial applications.
Probably the best-known solution is Predix, which its vendor says was the first of its kind in the world. But even Predix would likely require a certain amount of customisation because each manufacturing operation is different.
Big wired world
There are many other concepts and ideas emerging from the Industry 4.0 trend, one of which is the “smart factory” – where everything is connected, robotic and automated. Previously, individual, isolated robotic work cells within factories may have been considered “smart” in a similar way.
Underpinning all this connectivity, of course, is the internet of things, also known as the machine-to-machine network.
The first examples of smart factories are being opened now, with Audi launching its new smart factory next door to the US.
Professor Dr Hubert Waltl, head of Audi’s production and logistics operations, says: “Our plant in Mexico is a prime example of the Audi Smart Factory. The facility is the first that we have put into operation completely virtually, that is, in a computer simulation.”
Meanwhile, Siemens has been showing the Wall Street Journal around its Amberg plant, where its 1,000 manufacturing units are all connected to the internet and are able to fetch and assemble components without human input.
Designing a self-operating intelligent manufacturing system over the Internet could still be a decade away, but “we have the building blocks”, Siemens board member Siegfreid Russwarm tells Wall Street Journal.
And as well as industrial cloud software, another category of application has become popular – called “manufacturing execution systems”.
Of the above list, Predix and MindSphere have some elements of MES applications, but some companies offer solutions which are described specifically as MES. They include:
The above list may not be exhaustive, but it provides an insight into solutions being developed by the computer technology industry which is now bringing the old, industrial world totally into the internetworked world of today.
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