FEATURE
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Bright production

Information technologies like cloud computing and Internet of Things are bringing about big changes in manufacturing. Gemma Church looks at where laser systems will fit into these smart factories

Industry 4.0 could easily dismiss Industry 4.0 as another flash-in-the-pan buzzword. However, this phenomenon shows real promise to improve and revolutionise the manufacturing sector – and the laser systems industry is stepping up to this challenge.

The term Industry 4.0 originates from an initiative from the German government to promote IT in manufacturing. Industry 4.0 has evolved into a blanket catchphrase to describe the digitisation of manufacturing systems using technologies such as cloud computing, the Internet of Things (IoT) and cyber-physical systems. Some describe it as the fourth industrial revolution, others use terms such as ‘smart factories’ to describe the same simple concept – the marrying of IoT with manufacturing.

Within the laser systems sector, Industry 4.0 is often described in two dimensions: the vertical and the horizontal. Klaus Löffler, managing director at Trumpf Laser and Electronics, explained: ‘The vertical aspect of Industry 4.0 is the seamless digital link from sensors at a process level, via production equipment, the shop floor and factory, into the cloud. For the first time, we are able to read, collect and analyse massive amounts of data and consolidate and analyse it. This leads to better availability and utilisation of production equipment and facilities. But, it ultimately is a linear progression of productivity gains as we have known them.’

He added: ‘The horizontal aspect of Industry 4.0 could be disruptive and lead to skyrocketing productivity and growth. It is the seamless and continuous end-to-end digitalisation of the entire industrial process chain. Simplified, it is the order-to-cash process with all aspects of production, including planning, administration and logistics through the use of digital twins.’

Industry 4.0 is a natural match with the laser manufacturing industry, as Bernhard Henrich, technology management at non-profit research institute Photonik-Zentrum Kaiserslautern (PZKL), explained: ‘Optical measurement and machining technologies are versatile tools. Processes based on these technologies are software defined without the necessity of changing tools, are widely adaptable and the work is reactionless. They fit perfectly to the demands of Industry 4.0.’

A manufacturing execution system monitors, displays and evaluates machine statuses straight to a mobile handheld device

As Industry 4.0 comprises various aspects, it is important for the laser manufacturing sector to set clear priorities. For example, should manufacturers try to find out the capabilities of integrating existing laser technologies into an Industry 4.0 environment, or develop entirely new systems and methods?

The answer seems to be both. Existing laser systems are being modified to incorporate connected technologies, but the sector is also keeping its finger on the pulse by developing interesting, new laser systems.

Old tech, new tricks

PZKL focuses on two aspects in the field of Industry 4.0, as Henrich explained: ‘On the one hand, we work on making optical measuring and machining tools fit perfectly to Industry 4.0 requirements. For example, laser micromachining is pre-designated for batch-one production for mass production cost. A simple upload of a new CAD file in your workstation is often sufficient.

‘Certainly, the interplay with the measurement equipment must work, too. There are developments necessary in order to have a kind of intelligent measuring environment with the capability of self-configuration. The communication with other measurement equipment in the whole process, for example on the supplier side, will have to be implemented too.’

On the other hand, PZKL also partners with SMEs, as Henrich added: ‘They [SMEs] are forced to invest in an Industry 4.0 environment with the fear of backing the wrong horse. We [PZKL] will provide them [with] solutions open enough for future standardisation, but affordable now. Or, in other words, a solution which is Industry 4.0 ready.’

Machine tool manufacturer Amada initially prioritised offline software for Industry 4.0, as Matt Wood, senior product manager at Amada Europe, explained: ‘Without this, there is not much benefit to all the other aspects.’ Its VPSS 3i CAM software can already import a production plan from a customer’s material requirements planning (MRP) system to set up and process parts quickly.

More recently, Amada developed and launched a system called Amada Digital Support System (ADSS), which is installed and set up on the company’s new fibre laser cutting machines. It provides real-time monitoring of the machine, its systems and its productivity. Wood said: ‘From this, we can generate a report for the customer, showing the machine’s uptime, what was processed and its overall efficiency each month. We also use it as a proactive service tool. If we see some soft limit reached by a certain part of the machine, we can immediately organise a service engineer to visit the customer and investigate.

‘This is all happening automatically. The customer will not even know they have a potential issue. The engineer can arrive, check the machine and ensure it keeps running. Basically, we are booking a breakdown visit before the machine breaks down. This is a first implementation of the concept of predictive maintenance,’ Wood added.

Following the launch of its VPSS 3i CAM suite at Euroblech 2016, Amada is now working on scheduling systems, production control connections and cloud-based systems to allow remote access to the data. Wood said: ‘At this moment, Amada is focusing on machine data collection, storing the data in a cloud environment. These data could then be shown to customers through an easy UI, providing useful reports and statistics on machine performance.’

Trumpf incorporates Industry 4.0 into its products by differentiating between digital and physical solutions of the vertical and horizontal connections. Löffler explained: ‘We prepare and extend new services for our actual products, such as sensor packages and interfaces. For the vertical connection, we provide products like Factory Gate or a business platform and digital services like asset management and trend analysis. Furthermore, we provide solutions for the optimisation of the horizontal process of our customers, from offer and order management via shop floor management to shipping.’

Industry 4.0 solutions by Trumpf are brought together under TruConnect. The name references connected manufacturing, which links machines, people and information.

The company is setting priorities under three strategic initiatives. First, it is transforming more of its own processes for Industry 4.0. This work has already materialised in its punching tools production and sheet metal production units, where Trumpf switched traditional process flows over to work following digitalised process flows.

Second, it will secure and extend business in its classic markets by demonstrating its Industry 4.0 solutions.

Third, it is targeting new businesses and industries, for example in the field of business platforms with its start-up Axoom.

Löffler said: ‘If you ask for a specific priority, common to all three initiatives is the priority to connect machines, stations, systems and humans as basic requirements.’

Trumpf already offers its software TruTops Calculate, which allows users to calculate the projected costs of a job quickly and simply. Löffler added: ‘For TruTops Calculate it is irrelevant whether our customer wishes to set up a preliminary calculation for an offer or a time calculation for production planning. The tool performs both tasks quickly and reliably, no matter how many work steps are involved.’

Opportunities 4.0

The integration and development of Industry 4.0 solutions opens up many opportunities to current manufacturing processes. Wood said: ‘One simple benefit for the customer is to make them more reactive to their own customers’ requests, for quicker decision making. Hopefully this will help them win more work.’

A further indirect benefit of data collection is that it gives laser manufacturers the ability to provide users with new versions of products and work with users to develop new strategies to improve on the weak points highlighted from the analysis of collected data. Tailored laser systems that match the user’s needs and manufacturing environment could be a possibility.

Another area of improvement is within quality assurance. Henrich said: ‘QA is time consuming and not value generating. With an intelligent connection of the measurement technologies over the whole production process of a product, independent of the location, redundancies can be minimised.’

Henrich added: ‘An intelligent clustering of measurement technologies in an ad-hoc network is [also] possible. With the order, often the necessary QA measurement is fixed. For example, one piece needs a final surface inspection with a 100µm resolution, the other a 1µm resolution. From the very beginning of the production process, time slots for different machines can be reserved, or different configurations on the same machine can be pre-set respectively.’

Trumpf has taken its sheet metal production unit and switched it over to work using digital process flows

A key benefit of Industry 4.0 is improved productivity, as processes will be more stable and flexible. For example, Trumpf’s punching tool uses Industry 4.0 principles and has reduced lead time by 75 per cent. ‘At the same time, we increased our productivity by 50 per cent and our stability by 80 per cent. Furthermore, there is a big differentiation potential in the way of doing business and of customer interaction. And, of course, Industry 4.0 enables an efficient handling of small batch sizes up to lot size one,’ Löffler added.

Smart future

The demand for Industry 4.0 will continue to grow, as Wood stated: ‘There’s a growing requirement for software and machines to incorporate smart technologies of all kinds. Especially as we see more and more second or third generation family company owners coming through. People who have grown up with social media at their fingertips expect simple, smart integration.’

One might assume that the development of smart factories, fully integrated with Industry 4.0 technologies, is the natural conclusion to this work. But selective individual solutions for users are also feasible, as Henrich said: ‘In general, an individual solution doesn’t exclude being part of a smart factory. We are working on implementations that will be prepared for both a smart factory, as well as an individual solution. But the general tendency is indeed to build a smart factory.’

Solutions will change over the foreseeable future to meet the demands of Industry 4.0. For example, measurement systems will be more complex according to Henrich, who added: ‘It is a must that systems can be implemented in different situations. And measurement data will have to be pre-processed without losing raw data to make them accessible, for example, over a cloud infrastructure. One challenge there will be an intelligent [raw] data reduction.’

Amada will adapt its product offerings based on the voice of its customers and look for future trends in their manufacturing requirements, according to Wood: ‘We are studying new distribution strategies for software products, providing them to customers as services instead of using the traditional selling method. Development never stops. If you stop developing, you just go backwards.’

Will there be radically new types of products in future? It’s a question of a shift in attitude and processes, as Löffler said: ‘For sure, improvements and new technologies will follow, although we see already the most important technologies in place, but what will change radically are business models. The major differentiation and competition between manufacturers is going to occur here.’

Henrich added: ‘At the moment, we see a dramatic shift from traditional to digital production with some kind of [artificial] intelligence in many fields. For example, Audi will revolutionise its production by abandoning the assembly line. They will implement assembly stations instead where the next product in line searches automatically for the next free assembly station. These big changes will cause new challenges, which can also open doors for radically new types of products.’

Where will it end? The future of Industry 4.0 seems less than certain, but the possibilities and improvements to the manufacturing sector set this industrial revolution up for an ongoing transformation to both the equipment and methods used in the laser systems sector. 

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