The transformation of a traditional industrial plant into a “smart factory” confronts companies with major challenges in many ways. One of the most important aspects, in addition to the development and implementation of new processes and IoT-enabled production equipment, is the human factor. There is a wide range of training and education to make employees fit for the machines. At Centigrade, we take a different approach and develop user interfaces that make machines fit for employees. In this interview, our CEO Thomas Immich explains why Industry 4.0 is more than new, networked machines and why the human-machine interface needs to be rethought.
Thomas Immich: By the often vague term “strategy”, I primarily mean the statement: ‘Let’s no longer remain in a state of working through things, but rather come to overturning changes with effective smart steps. We always incorporate this motto when developing user interfaces for machines and systems.
Especially in the UX area, a good UX strategy pays off twice: most users are already overwhelmed by the amount of features that are imposed on them every day. Countermeasures must therefore be aimed at offering users significantly fewer features. On the one hand, this leads to more satisfied users with more competent experiences, but at the same time it also leads to lower implementation costs, because many functions can already be eliminated or at least down-prioritized in the concept phase.
Question: Industry 4.0 increases the degree of automation, networks machines and processes, and allows machine and workpiece to communicate with each other. How important is the human interface in this context?
Thomas Immich: It is very important! Of course, machines and robots in particular are taking over more and more simple tasks. But the complexity of the goods produced is increasing to at least a similar extent, as is the consumer’s desire for individualization. The flexible production that Industry 4.0 dreams of is only possible if people continue to play an important role – but with modified work tasks.
Take, for example, one of our long-standing and highly innovative customers, SEW-EURODRIVE: Despite automation at the highest level, it is absolutely clear, even in top management, that the human being is the ‘conductor of value creation’. By the way, this word creation does not come from me, but from the visionary Mr. Soder, SEW’s technical managing director.
So of course Industry 4.0 is about future topics such as artificial intelligence, cobotics or autonomous vehicles. That’s why the strategic partnership with DFKI, the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, is very close to our hearts. But all the new technologies and possibilities have to be understood, adjusted, controlled and answered for by people! A self-explanatory and intuitive user interface is therefore the
is the be-all and end-all.
Question: What requirements do large mechanical engineering companies approach you with?
Thomas Immich: Of course, every company that uses our UX services has very specific requirements. But despite all the individuality and despite all the multifaceted efforts of automation companies, component manufacturers, series and special machine builders, or even plant operators, one can say: at the end of the day, an overarching requirement is that old, encrusted processes should be rethought, revisaged, and made more efficient in the sense of the users. Users should experience joy in operation and be able to achieve their goal even without a manual or expert training!
Question: How large is the research budget at Centigrade?
Thomas Immich: Our research budget always depends heavily on the economic development of the last business year. However, we can proudly say that we invest an above-average amount in research and development compared to our number of employees. For example, we always have two BMBF-funded research projects running in parallel. So we proactively strive to be close to research partners such as the Fraunhofer Institutes, the aforementioned DFKI, or technical universities in order to keep thinking outside the box when it comes to UX development as well. There are so many topics out there whose time may not yet be ripe in some cases, but will certainly come soon.
So we are continuously preparing for the situation that a customer inquires with us and suddenly wants to roll out a new approach on a large scale, which was recently considered ‘dreams of the future’. Through our many research projects, we can then already look back on numerous experiences and also failures that help us and the customer to mitigate the greatest risk of an innovative project.
Question: The Saarland has a strong research landscape, with a large number of renowned institutes, especially in the IT environment. Is the closeness to researchers a locational advantage for Centigrade?
Thomas Immich: Definitely! Especially when it comes to the direct location advantage at the university campus. We love the closeness to the DFKI with forward-looking projects such as the Innovative Retail Lab, to the Max Planck Institute, the CISPA Helmholtz Center for Information Security, and of course to Saarland University.
Of course, the local proximity because of Corona is no longer a real advantage right now, but I’m sure it will come back! And then I’m happy to just stroll over for five minutes, discuss an idea and go back again.
But fortunately, Saarland generally doesn’t have long distances, which is why collaboration with Festo Polymer, ZeMa or the up-and-coming automotive startup Elexir, among others, has always been uncomplicated. All in all, we should work together to sharpen Saarbrücken’s concentrated IT, industry and UX power in its external presentation as well!
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