DIGITAL REGIONS virtual visit to the Swiss Smart Factory

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Swiss partners spreading Industry 4.0 with Promotion, Playgrounds and Partnerships
04 December 2020 - DIGITAL REGIONS  project
Dr Margaret Quinn

ERNACT led and Interreg Europe funded DIGITAL REGIONS project partners and stakeholders had the opportunity to visit the Swiss Smart Factory in Biel, Canton of Berne (Switzerland), via an online workshop on November 26th 2020. Unfortunately, due to these exceptional times, a physical visit was not possible. Despite this, attendees from Bulgaria, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Romania, and Slovenia could feel they were almost on-site via a live tour through the facility and benefited from insightful, inspiring presentations on how the region is supporting SME’s on Industry 4.0.

The aim of the visit was to learn about the good practices of the Swiss Smart Factory directed at increasing manufacturing SME’s engagement on Industry 4.0, I4.0. Our host Dominic Gorecky noted the importance of collaboration and partnerships, both in the DIGITAL REGIONS project and more widely, as typically SME’s have limited time, resources, understanding on how to face the complexity of I4.0 and digitalisation to be in a position to grasp benefits.

The inspiring story of the Switzerland Innovation Park Biel/Bienne (SIPBB), the host of Swiss Smart Factory, was told by Thomas Gfeller, SIPBB-Chairman. Started 8 years ago, SIPBB is itself a start-up. Two key strategic shifts for its creation were noted: The regional diversification from watch manufacturing into med-tech by leveraging skills in precision engineering and secondly, the need to become capable of smart production via I4.0 technologies.

Many conversations were had with local companies who were saying that they lacked the critical size and technical strength to make the kind of radical changes needed for I4.0 adoption to be able to continue to compete globally. It emerged that what was needed was a platform for fast efficient access to resources that companies could not afford alone. For Thomas, this sharing of innovation resources was and is the key. The resources are both the brains of the people involved in SSF and SIBPP and the machines, the technical platform of 3D printers, robots, clean rooms etc. The concept has been very successful. SIPBB is 95% privately owned and aims to be a profitable undertaking in the near term. It now has 40 staff and is scaling up with a move to new expanded premises in 2021. The overall vision is to offer an attractor for talent and ideas which serve industry of the region, and further afield, to improve innovation fitness – a training gym for company innovation! 

The approach to innovation in the Swiss Smart Factory was explained by Dominic Gorecky along with their Good Practices and I4.0 Training Programmes. Though almost 10 years old, he noted that I4.0 is still not widely or fully implemented and that the COVID crisis constitutes an additional impetus behind it. Though DIGITAL REGIONS focus is on manufacturing, digitalisation encompasses many areas such a smart home, smart healthcare, smart mobility. The increasing business value with I4.0 is from connectivity, visibility, transparency, readiness via prognostic capability on to adaptability via autonomous optimisation.

The role of I4.0 in a new economic structure of increasingly customer-oriented value creation based on new logistics and production concepts was highlighted with examples such as MyMuesli. I4.0 adoption can be seen as a transformation process which is multi-faceted and inter-disciplinary, potentially bringing in horizontal integration across production units, digital twins of production, vertical integration across the whole production cycle with a range of technology such as data analytics, AR/VR, cloud computing and more.

The undoubted complexity makes collaboration so important. The SSF good practice  'An open platform for technology adoption' is firmly based on collaboration as it coordinates the collaboration between technology / service providers and technology end-users. It starts with promotion and advocacy with “Inspire and Demonstrate” stage. Then is “test and develop” by prototyping and on to “training and support”. Prototyping examples were shown with computer vision and AI for a workflow recognition system. The playground “hands-on” aspect of training was shown in an example of machine learning workshops where participants solve a practical example from industry.

An I4.0 training workshop for 2021 is planned based on a one day team workshop with a training line to show best practice examples of digitization in production: Manufacturing Execution Systems, dashboards, auto-Id-solutions, assistance systems and AR. SSF acts as a neutral facilitating entity and has a membership model with a large number of I4.0 technology providers on board as members. This allows cost sharing, access to the latest technology and know-how. On getting micro-enterprises to engage, Dominic pointed to openness to SME’s, on social networks and via their networks as key.

Thanks to Michael Wendling, Project Manager of SPIBB, we had live tour revealing the second good practice of Digitization Parkour, “consisting of several, interactive demo stations, helps to explore and analyse new technologies in a tangible and practise-oriented way” and comes from the Light House Project Industry 4.0. The hands-on here was the I4.0 production cycle of a number of  drone variants and the use of I4.0 to make it happen, from digital configuration, a 3D printing farm of parts, an automated and collaborative robotic production station, smart connected storage in smart lockers and toolbox, smart logistics & quality inspection. The tour showed how much is involved in being an I4.0 “Playground”!

The innovation policy of the Canton of Berne was outlined by Virve Resta of Berne Economic Development Agency (BEDA). The area is the second largest Canton in Switzerland, the primary industrial region in the country and home to 60,000 companies, mostly SME’s. Virve noted the key role of “Hidden Champions”, family owned businesses which have become global leaders across a wide range of sectors from watches, jewellery, pharmaceuticals, engineering and medical devices and are very export oriented. Key aspects of the innovation promotion strategy were highlighted such as focus on growing markets where the canton has competitiveness, being inter-disciplinary, a strong focus on business needs and also a results orientation. It was interesting to note that the cluster policy which was followed for 20 years has now ended. A key item was emphasised- developing the innovation ecosystem to distribute knowledge and contact between stakeholders

Innovation coaching for SME’s and start-ups in the region is provided by the Be-advanced agency which aims to “guide Bernese entrepreneurs through the ecosystem, give them valuable impulses and thus sustainably increase innovation, entrepreneurial dynamism and economic strength throughout the entire canton”. Roger Neuenschwander, Head of Be-Advanced, gave an overview of the innovation support for SME’s in the Canton which has 1m citizens, 70,000 start-ups, is the number one industrial Canton in Switzerland and has the second highest GDP in the country. For Roger, the key essential elements for innovation are the business idea and the entrepreneurship, the capability to bring the idea to market. In the former BE-Advanced provide support to help shape the idea and in the latter, they provide support to empower the entrepreneur. Three programme areas were highlighted, start-up programme, founder coaching and SME coaching. The start-up programme was outlined with distinct programmes for different stages from early stage for problem solution fit, Challenge, Evolve for product market fit and High Flyer for scaling up support. For SME support a responsive, collaborative  and needs oriented approach is taken and is based on smE MOWER. The smE-MPOWER team use a life cycle model to support SME’s in different stages and with different challenges according to the stage. Currently in piloting is a shared support and innovation process between Be-Advanced and the SSF technical platform which will be very interesting to hear about once results emerge. The final message was certainly empowering: “Your future is what you make it!”

Click here to email  Ianire Renobales at ERNACT for further information

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