If Germany has anything to say about it, the Factory of the Future is really the Factory of the Very Near Future. Formal, repetitive assembly lines will be obsolete by 2025, replaced by flexible, smart manufacturing systems that act and react according to a two-way digital data-stream. That’s a pretty bold vision to accomplish in just 10 years, but both the impetus and the solutions seem to be keeping pace.
Driving this radical change are worldwide demands for improved quality, lower labor costs, individualized products, and shorter product lifecycles. Enabling the changes are complementary technologies that affect the entire value chain. Manufacturing equipment can now share highly detailed, two-way status information through Internet of Things (IoT) technology, both with other equipment and with the parts themselves. High-speed networks and cloud-based computing resources already analyze data to direct the next move. And in the coming years, fixed assembly lines will be replaced by flexible, modular systems including 3D printers that reconfigure themselves as needed. This connected approach would help companies save production time while adding more value (especially customization) to their offerings.
Companies, and countries, that embrace this scenario will be leading a global manufacturing revival. This month, Desktop Engineering takes a look across the pond at German efforts to network humans, objects and systems for tomorrow’s smart factory revolution, with Siemens PLM Software in a lead role.
Shaping the Next Wave of Industry
Historians have labeled significant eras of manufacturing after disruptive technologies. Steam-powered machinery, electrified equipment and computer-controlled systems each changed production methods forever. Though still in its infancy, a new, fourth industrial revolution promises to do the same, and it already has a general name: Industry 4.0.
In the U.S., support for the transition to Industry 4.0 comes from groups such as the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition and its program to create the Open Smart Manufacturing Platform. In Germany, a country with a long history of manufacturing expertise, a coordinated government initiated project for intelligent production operates under the variant name, Industrie 4.0.
Both nomenclatures give a not so subtle nod to the world of software revisions, reflecting the fusion of manufacturing equipment, control systems, and data collection made possible in large part by the technology behind the Internet of Things (IoT). Small, inexpensive sensor hardware combined with targeted application software has enabled explosive growth in smart devices. Adding this capability to industrial equipment, processes and inventory has created an industrial IoT (IIoT) sub-domain of cyber-physical systems that is already helping companies monitor, communicate, analyze and apply digital manufacturing information in close to real time.
New Business Models, New Tactics
Why is this important? One perspective comes from manufacturing engineering executives at Siemens PLM Software, a company whose products are directly relevant to the interconnected world. “Next generation manufacturing offers a way to meet customer demands for new, high-quality customized offerings at ever-shorter time intervals. It also has the potential to reduce resource utilization, which will help manufacturers cope with growing cost pressures,” Zvi Feuer, senior vice president of Siemens PLM Software, wrote in a recent corporate blog post.
RFID Tag, You’re It: Defining Unique Identities
The original Universal Product Code (UPC) bar code system (begun in 1963) is slowly being replaced with the Electronic Product Code (EPC) consisting of a bar code plus numbers, whose definition has already gone through several iterations.
The basic technology used to support the EPC as a global, end-to-end supply chain standard is the radio frequency identification (RFID) tag and reader, based on the newest EPC Gen 2 definitions. Globally, such systems operate over the 860MHz to 960MHz band. North American Gen 2 uses 902MHz to 928MHz while European Gen 2 uses 860MHz to 868MHz; equipment based on EPC Global tags work across the full EPC spectrum.
In order for products to have a unique identity from birth and be traceable cradle-to-grave components, assemblies and final products from smart factories will undoubtedly be labeled with RFID tags throughout the manufacturing process. To accommodate different types of products, materials and pricing needs, subsets of the EPC bands are assigned to different power levels and capabilities. Various types of RFID tag/reader systems operate with active, semi-passive and passive tag technology as well as different read/write data structures and content.
For a good discussion of the possibilities, visit SkyRFID.
Feuer says that German manufacturing is already seeing use of equipment that can react to parts tagged for RFID (radio frequency identification) and assemblies in advanced industries such as automotive. “When a partially assembled vehicle is moving on the assembly line, it carries a sensor and in there is a code of what needs to be done next,” he says. “When it comes into a station, the station can react automatically and show the assembly workers who are going to operate this station what needs to be done for this specific vehicle.
“This is not rocket science, but still it requires a lot of pre-planning, making sure the robotics, tools and controllers all work in synch,” Feuer continues. “You will also see more of this in the process industry, for example, with bottling. The RFID tag on a bottle will tell the machine what kind of formula to fill, like in shampoo production or perfume. We’re going to see this in combination with the more advanced robotic facilities.”
Equipping both the parts and the manufacturing equipment with sensors supports a number of other steps critical for the smart factory evolution. First, capturing detailed information lets robotic vision systems inspect, measure and compare as-built parts to the original CAD-defined dimensions for automated go/no-go decisions. Second, information can be sent back to the design engineers, who can learn from mistakes made in part design or assembly processes. And third, real-time or near real-time data gives feedback on how the equipment operation may be deviating from the perfect virtual plan. Such digitally recorded information lets motion-control programmers know that a machine needs to be tuned, offers various ways to improve process quality and supports tooling certification (an increasingly important aspect of cradle-to-grave tracking and certification requirements).
Setting up such production lines, particularly as consumers demand more customized, one-of-a-kind products, requires rapid, integrated planning. Feuer says that the Siemens PLM Software toolset is a crucial part of the Siemens Digital Enterprise Software Suite. Combining simulation, automation and data management, the suite offers a complete solution aligned with all the requirements of Industrie 4.0.
“All of our tools work on top of the PLM Teamcenter backbone,” he says. “You start by designing the product then store the design information in Teamcenter. You then do the analysis, do the manufacturing process, and then go and design the production facility that can put together this product. Today all of this is done in parallel that used to be sequential.”
Cooperation and Standards
Within the Industrie 4.0 effort, Feuer says there is an unbelievable open market attitude of both cooperation and competition. “Our Sinumerik CNC (computer numerically controlled) machine controls are extensively used to operate robots,” says Feuer. “Each vendor has its own control system but some customers prefer to use the Siemens control because of its agility, versatility and ability to connect with various simulations of line programming and virtual commissioning (system setup) software.”
With all the equipment and processes in use within any given industry segment (automotive, electrical, chemical, etc.) no single vendor can supply every type of system. It’s no wonder that equipment based on a variety of engineering and industrial standards gets used concurrently and must work together. To support widespread implementation of the Industrie 4.0 vision, these standards must be coordinated, modified or consolidated.
Areas with multiple possible standards include Ethernet implementation, data exchange related to automated manufacturing equipment and data exchange of part files created in different CAD programs. Profinet is an industrial Ethernet implementation that adds real-time performance and robustness to everyday Ethernet use and is becoming a worldwide industry standard.
Automation Mark-up Language (AutomationML) is a neutral data format based on XML that enables information exchange between cross-disciplinary automated equipment. It actually incorporates several different standards that deal with topology, geometry, kinematics and logic control. Eventually, this approach will let users connect different devices and display all process information within one system.
And Siemens PLM Software’s own JT file format is seeing growing use for lightweight visualization of 3D product data. Since its beginnings in 1997 and formal publication in 2007, the JT format has supported digital collaboration at many levels, making it easier and faster to move 3D data within a company or enterprise, or between a company and vendors. Accepted as the world’s first ISO International Standard for lightweight 3D visualization, JT allows multiple parties to exchange 3D information even if they do not use the same CAD programs.
Practical Steps, Long-Term Strategy
Implementing Industrie 4.0 tactics will not be a linear process, but companies can — and are — taking steps right now to bring their manufacturing processes into this new era. Adding sensors and software to equipment and components forms the first step for factories to become data-driven and responsive. Active monitoring of this information in real time allows tracking individual parts through their entire production cycle, so problems during manufacturing can be quickly identified and corrected. Step two compiles the data gathered over the course of building thousands of parts, or running machinery for thousands of hours, providing insight into deviations or faults; such information can then guide improvements to both processes and part design. A third step will require translating this data at a higher level into new product concepts offering capabilities that weren’t previously possible or identified.
Siemens’ long-term strategy may take 15 to 20 years, but Feuer believes many aspects of Industrie 4.0 factories will come sooner. The benefits will go beyond improving manufacturing efficiency and satisfying discerning consumers. “Industrie 4.0 is not a slogan to generate more revenues,” he says. “It’s a strategy started by the government and adopted by Siemens and some other big players in the industry because we want to make sure we are doing something good for the society as well as making a profit. We want to create jobs, create opportunities. Even though it sounds a bit strange because we’re talking a lot about automation and robotics — yes, the types of jobs on the shop floor are going to change — but we still will be creating jobs and they are well paying jobs.”