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Interview #9 : It’s industry but not as we know it!

Posted on: 15.01.2019

A new revolution is rivalling the steam- and electricity-powered behemoths of centuries past that made automated production possible and later paved the way for computing and robotics. But there is something tantalisingly different about Industry 4.0, the latest revolution, which is as much about saving resources as previous generations have been about productivity gains. A new study by Germany’s VDI Centre for Resource Efficiency (VDI ZRE) explores what these developments mean for small and medium-sized manufacturers in Europe.   

As technology becomes more affordable, the digitisation of processes – from stock control to production, packaging and shipping – are now within the means of even small manufacturers. This could be a game-changer as Europe’s SME manufacturers start to catch on to the benefits that Industry 4.0 can deliver in terms of resource efficiency. EREK Quarterly caught up with Martin Vogt, VDI ZRE’s managing director, to discuss their new publication, Resource efficiency through industry 4.0 – potential for SMEs in the manufacturing industries.

Martin Vogt holds a degree in Physics from Humboldt University Berlin and a PhD from University of Cambridge. From 2004 to 2006, he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University. From 2007 to 2012, he worked as a technology consultant at the VDI Technology Centre in Düsseldorf. Since then, he has also worked at the VDI Centre for Resource Efficiency focusing on promoting resource-efficient technologies and processes in small and medium-sized businesses. The Centre is mainly financed by the National Climate Initiative of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment. Since October 2013, Mr Vogt has been the Managing Director of the Centre.​

  • What is the study about? 

The study analyses how SMEs involved in manufacturing industries could operate more competitively and save resources through the implementation of technologies associated with the digital transformation. Ten case studies are identified, highlighting different scenarios for application and solutions from operational practice. The study showcases how the implementation of selected technologies contributes to resource efficiency in companies, ranging from the manufacturing of electronics or plastics to the construction of machinery. 

  • Can digitalisation actually help companies to realise savings in their business? 

According to the self-assessment of companies participating in the study, a reduction of up to 25 % of their energy and material consumption could be realised. The study highlights 11 digitisation measures associated with the reduction of natural resources. Besides measures resulting in lower energy and material consumption, others also focus, for example, on reducing defective parts which leads to a reduction of waste and necessary storage space. 

  • Given Industry 4.0 developments, what do you recommend to SMEs that want to increase their resource efficiency performance and also reduce costs?  

The results of the study show that SMEs understand ‘digitalisation’ or the ‘Industry 4.0’ phenomenon differently. At the same time, resource efficiency is mostly seen as a side effect of digitisation. However, by implementing digital technologies strategically, companies can leverage remarkable material and energy efficiency potential gains. In fact, digitalisation should be understood as a comprehensive collection and optimisation of all energy and material flows along the life cycle of a product. On that basis, it almost always leads to an increase in resource efficiency. Digital tools should be systematically used to collect and process data in order to optimise the material and energy flows. 

  • Where do you see challenges and barriers to increased resource efficiency through digitalisation?  

In Germany, the expansion of broadband networks can still be seen as a challenge. Also, data security and employee qualifications need to be discussed and promoted. Resource efficiency only stands a chance if it is understood as an integral part of a company’s digitalisation strategy, ideally at an early stage. For that reason, support activities for SMEs are indispensable. The study concludes with recommendations for SMEs, policy-makers and scientists on how to develop and provide support to SMEs on resource efficiency through digital technologies.   


Check out the summary of the study for an excellent overview of the topic !