A vision of how technology and computers may shape our world in the future is everywhere: Hollywood films are littered with it – in Total Recall a company sells memory implants of vacations, in Minority Report advertisements actually call out to people after retinal scan recognitions, while, alarmingly, in Terminator the defence system Skynet becomes self-aware.

While some of these are far-fetched, some are nearer to reality than you may think. In the manufacturing world, developments are under way to move things to another level in the IT interaction between people, product and machines.

In Germany these efforts have been labeled ‘Industry 4.0’ – a "fourth industrial revolution".

This is a German government project involving large companies like Siemens.

Based on cyber-physical production systems, the initiative aims to create a smart factory characterised by adaptability, resource efficiency and ergonomics, plus integration of customers, business partners and value processes.

"We have been in the project right from the beginning," said Wolfgang Schroeder, head of TIA (Totally Integrated Automation) marketing in Siemens’ digital factory division.

"We see our industry now evolving. At Siemens we are trying to focus on the topics which are important to our customers – the focus on the production, the relevant lifecycle of products from product design to real production.

"We try to focus our activities on developing the digital enterprise platform. This is where we have all manufacturing processes, but also product design, giving a digital representation of all the data needed.

"Today, a lot of data is still handled manually – there are a lot of lists – despite the involvement of software. What is missing is a link between everything. Our big vision is being able to link all software to create real benefits."

"The car manufacturing industry is a very good example, because everyone knows the end product. It’s an important industry that is really pushing this topic. When a car manufacturer designs the product there is a lot of digital data – from the initial car design, to the first tests and to the phase when you start thinking about how to produce the car.

You think what kind of machines you will need and in which order in the production process and where to optimise processes. Then there is the next step of what the factory needs to look like and, of course, engineering it.

"Once the production is running, we continually want to know what is the production performance, what is the quality. Are there any issues? Do we need a maintenance stop? What about the energyefficiency – we need to track that."

"With this data chain, we need to have the data from the previous step in the production process.

"For instance, someone buys a new model of car and they find an issue with it after some weeks, maybe a problem with a door. The car manufacturer wants to avoid producing a car with a faulty door because in today’s production world it can take quite a long time to change not only the design, but also to implement it in the production chain.

"Our vision is if you have all the data from all the processes then everyone can access it immediately and within hours or days you can have a change realised on the shop floor."

Mr Schroeder said that in the wood based panel manufacturing industry, product quality and efficient use of the raw material is important.

"With the wood based panels industry it [Industrie 4.0] will look completely different from the car industry," he said.

He said the Pfleiderer particleboard mill at Neumarkt, completed in 2013, was a very advanced application of the latest software and control systems and an example of how the panel industry is taking a next step on the way towards Industrie 4.0.

"In the Pfleiderer case, we had an application where we could reduce the use of raw material due to automation functions, tracing used material, with Dieffenbacher improving the algorithms."

"In the beginning it looks like a small amount of saving but when you consider the large volumes of panels Pfleiderer produces it can actually be a lot of money saved."

Mr Schroeder emphasised that the Pfleiderer mill was one of the first industrial users of the Siemens S7-1500 PLC controller.

"But Industrie 4.0 does not yet exist," he said. "It will still take many years for Industry 4.0 to be realised. It’s hard to say exactly when, but there will need to be more data integration."

Mr Schroeder said further data integration of the product development and manufacturing planning processes were areas for a next big step up in the panel production industry.

"When a wood based panel manufacturer decides to produce a new type of panel it requires many hours of work before you can get the information to the machines.

"The customer expects more and more products, different thicknesses, different forms. Each customer expects something else. It is evident that only with digital processes can production changes be applied economically."

But the future could see producers able to swiftly switch production to different panels, while achieving a high throughput.

"This will be one of the biggest-impact changes. There is a demand for a high degree of customisation and I think there is a lot of potential. It is up to us to provide solutions that make this increasing customisation competitive."

Siemens has been positioning itself in recent years to be able to help all types of large-scale production. In 2007 it acquired UGS, a product lifecycle management and manufacturing process management software firm, whose products included Tecnomatix. This product forms the main part of Siemens PLM Software.

"We are evolving into a company that is not only a supplier of automation equipment. We can provide industry software for the complete value chain. This is how we see our future and we are well prepared. Industry 4.0 is a vision for the distant future and it is definitely where we want to go."

Reassuringly, Siemens does not predict factories without workers and says personnel will always be needed.

"There are factories in Siemens where we have some lines that are working completely autonomously and we only need workers for maintenance, surveillance and logistics. But it depends on the industry you are in.

"Today, we need people to identify where production can be optimised."