Smartening up Production

Production of as many different products as possible in a single system with the shortest possible conversion times – this is something that companies have been dreaming about for a long time. One solution: a neutral, intelligent system that can use diverse, changeable tools to produce a wide range of different things.

The production facility of the future does not resemble a typical system. It looks more like an accurately planned network of streets with individual blocks and with automated guided vehicles (AGVs) moving around between them. They fetch tools, equip robots with them and supply components from the warehouse to the block-like production cells. There, robots perform welding, screw fastening and bonding tasks on the different components. Intelligent software maintains an overview of the whole system. It knows where the AGVs are located, which components they need to deliver to the robots, and quickly prepares a conversion.

Increasing type variety, more frequent changes of model and fluctuating production quantities: in a fiercely competitive market, such flexible solutions are of decisive importance. Quickly adaptable production cells are replacing rigid systems, where the conversion can take many weeks or even months.

The flexibility is based on a programmable material flow, explains a KUKA Software Development expert. “In smart production, parts logistics and production are separated from one another. The different areas are linked together as required by automated guided vehicles and intelligent software.” The production cells are equipped with neutral equipment. This interaction enables simple scaling of production or rapid adaptation to new products. In this way, a single system could be used to produce a washing drum or a wheel arch for automobiles.

Production know-how and industrial service as a business model?SmartProductionCenter

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Maaß heads the Smart Service Engineering department as Scientific Director at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI). He sees the gain in flexibility primarily as a chance for innovative business models. While issues such as predictive maintenance techniques and condition monitoring are important aspects, they mainly serve the purpose of cost optimization. Maaß sees the creation of innovative business models particularly where companies are prepared to transform themselves: “This can be an expansion to include additional branches of industry or product ranges.”

In a smart production facility with its networked machines, large quantities of data are naturally generated – a further benefit for the companies. DFKI is investigating how production data and know-how can be traded and recognized on balance sheets. Here, once again, there is scope for an innovative business model: “Data about the quality of incoming raw materials and semi-finished products or wear to tooling and machinery over time, for example, can be analyzed and condensed to knowledge which can then be sold.”

In the future, support services could also be generated in a production shop, explains the KUKA expert: “Smart production, with its freely programmable sequences and conversions and intelligent software, enables Pay-Per-Use and X-as-a-Service business models.” This means that a company no longer sells a specific product, for example, but offers its system infrastructure as a service.

Bringing supply and demand together: ARENA2036

One example of such innovative models is the research campus ARENA2036. The versatile research shop is part of the campus of the University of Stuttgart and functions according to a familiar principle: the world’s largest ride-hailing company Uber does not own a single vehicle, the world’s largest accommodation-sharing provider Airbnb does not own a single bed – the trick is to bring supply and demand together.

This is also the task performed by ARENA2036, explains Peter Fröschle, Chairman: “We do not employ researchers of our own, but function as a broker of research projects and collaboration opportunities. We provide the building and thus a project area for the cooperation, for example. In ARENA2036, the expertise of the different partners is bundled, accelerating the process from the idea to its implementation.” In other words, a research campus in which partners from the worlds of science and business can jointly research and shape topics such as mobility, production and work in the context of digital transformation.

Smart solution of challenges

A certain degree of creativity is required to change our thinking away from established, traditional processes and towards automated guided vehicles and smart software. “To put it in a nutshell, the challenge is actually to make use of the new possibilities and not to be limited by prevalent notions of what can currently be achieved in terms of flexibility using conventional controllers,” says Bauer.

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