Humans and robots work hand in hand
In a small factory hall of the “Future Work Lab” at Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO in Stuttgart, Germany, a robot does more than just lend a helping hand to a human worker. The “Stuttgart Exo-Jacket” is a so-called exoskeleton, a type of jacket that assists a factory worker in leg and arm movements, thereby helping the human to exert less energy, and facilitates movements that strain the muscles. The exoskeleton made of carbon is just one of several developments in which machines and robots do not replace humans but make them stronger and enhance their capabilities. Another example that can be seen at the Future Work Lab in Stuttgart is a smart worktable that completely adjusts to the human operator by automatically adjusting the height of the tabletop and using light cones to point out the next step in the workflow. And then there’s also a type of flying servant, a drone that delivers the required parts to the factory workers. In all of these innovations, safety plays an important role as well. Mobile manufacturing assistants such as drones or grippers are equipped with cameras and sensors in order to be able to detect humans and get out of their way. In addition, the machines are supposed to be able to interpret human behavior based on the information they’ve gathered. A body lying on the floor, for instance, indicates an emergency that requires medical attention – so the machine calls for help: robots, our new congenial colleagues.
An architecture that doesn’t separate but unites
Schaeffler’s new production site in Xiangtan, China, to be launched in 2019 is configured like a butterfly. The central building and adjacent material warehouse form the torso connected to which are the wings: four manufacturing halls, two on either side. All workers enter the factory through the central building and proceed across a type of backbone into one of the two wings. The central building and the backbone – both also referred to by Schaeffler’s designers as the campus – are intended as places for people to meet and communicate. Be it a manager on the way to the office or a factory worker on the way to the assembly line – all of them will walk on the same paths for a while and can engage in an exchange. While this may sound like nothing unusual it’s still a far cry from reality in many of today’s factories. This exchange-promoting architecture, though, is just one of the aspects in which Schaeffler’s production site in Xiangtan sets new architectural standards. Included in the concept design of the campus was a feng shui consultant in order to incorporate the local culture right from the beginning. The main entrance, for instance, opens toward the south so the energy of the Lian Shui river can be absorbed. In addition, the factory was constructed so that the employees are able to look outside from practically anywhere in the factory – a considerable enhancement of workplace quality. Sometimes future simply means – more daylight.
» Augmented reality and autonomous robots will merge with each other
Science fiction author Bruce Sterling in tech magazine “Wired”
» A standardized utility grid makes it possible for us to connect machines to the grid with greater speed and ease
Stephan Böhnlein, Manager Corporate Factory Planning at Schaeffler
More than just three-dimensional: augmented reality in planning, assembly and maintenance
What would it be like to walk around a production machine or a finished component to take a close look at it before it even exists? The concept of augmented reality (AR) makes exactly this possible. Smart AR glasses literally expand the horizons of both engineering designers and factory workers. They project additional information and objects directly into the wearer’s field of view – precisely where and when needed or desired. For the engineering designer, for instance, this means being able to realistically check if all the components in a visualized project can be assembled and what the final product looks like in detail. In a manner of speaking, it’s like taking a look into the future that can predict and thus prevent a number of failures and bad designs. AR glasses can be of major help to factory workers as well by enabling design data shown in the display to be compared with the real-world image captured by a camera in the AR glasses to detect variations. The symbiosis of the virtual and real world is a gain for everyone. And if the tactile senses should be required after all, 3D printing technology enables rapid prototyping.
Production processes to be adjusted overnight
Progress means speed. This also applies to manufacturing in particular. Production cycles keep getting shorter, and so does the life span of technological developments. A manufacturing line that, once set up, will produce the same things for years or even decades – is history. That’s why factories today and in the future have to be as flexible as possible. Starting in 2019, the new Schaeffler production site in Xiangtan will show what this looks like in real life. The large factory halls there will be provided with a tight utility grid. This way modular manufacturing equipment in standard dimensions can be connected to the electricity, water and data network and taken into operation. Due to this “plug and produce” concept, even existing machines can be shifted and fit into new environments according to the Tetris principle – production could start immediately. There are many indications that in the future such “modular assembly” will displace the long and rigid assembly line system. Flexibility even goes so far that a factory can literally be switched to a different product overnight. This extreme adaptability not only accommodates the rapid development of technology but also makes it possible to respond to economic trends and requirements quickly and cost-efficiently.
Smart networking of machines and components
They used to be silent servants without eyes and ears. Today, production machines, not least due to digitalization, are increasingly evolving into responsive and extremely alert partners. Cameras scan their surroundings and, for example, prevent work accidents, microphones record noise and detect trouble, other sensors such as laser measure gaps, volumes, surface shapes or temperatures. The data exchange between machines enables them to capture working worlds on all-new levels. Both the machines themselves and central computers continuously improve their ability to correctly interpret data – the key to success being smart software. To drive this progress, Schaeffler not only cooperates with universities and research facilities such as Fraunhofer Institute. Recently, Schaeffler also fully acquired autinity systems GmbH. The IT firm specializes in machine data acquisition and interpretation. Time for the smart factory to move in? Actually, most of it has already arrived!
Big data: the self-learning factory
It’s about the needle in the haystack. And about why we’re going to increasingly find it in the future. And about what autonomous learning processes of factories have to do with all this. The haystack in this case is big data (see “Smart networking of machines and components”). But if you take a very close look at the huge volume of data generated in a digital factory you’ll actually find the famous needles with pinpoint accuracy. In this case, it’s important correlations and information that can improve manufacturing operations. High-performance computers can already achieve this today. They analyze huge data volumes, recognize contexts and correlations and are able to predict events that can be prepared for. A few examples: Due to sensors and RFID tags, the material inventory is always in the computer. Over time, the computer learns how much is actually being consumed – as a result allowing material to be ordered with increasingly greater accuracy. Machine failures due to wear will soon be history too. Thanks to an accumulation of sensor data and information, maintenance schedules can be optimized and parts exchanged before they fail. The factory of the future will also be able to autonomously detect malfunctions in the production process by automatically matching machine parameters stored in the memory in the case of abnormalities with the actual values at the time of manufacturing. In such cases, the factory of the future displays a trait humans sometimes lack: It learns from its mistakes.
» We had plenty of specifications. Perhaps the most important one was bringing people together
Andreas Fuchs, Head of Programming at Henn, the architectural firm that has planned Schaeffler’s first “factory for tomorrow”