08 March, 2017

Factory of the Future

Simulation, 3D printing, lightweight robots – these are some of the innovative technologies driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Siemens’ Electronics Manufacturing Plant in Erlangen, Germany (GWE).

Siemens’ Electronics Manufacturing Plant in Erlangen, Germany (GWE).

08 March 2017

Simulation, 3D printing, lightweight robots – these are some of the innovative technologies driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution – or Industrie 4.0. And they are already a reality at the Siemens’ Electronics Manufacturing Plant in Erlangen, Germany (GWE). A key reason for the success of this plant is that people and machines work hand in hand.

Schorsch assembles small converters. Hannes does the big ones; he inserts a fan and a heat sink in the housing and fastens them with four screws – several hundred times a day. When Hannes takes a break, Schorsch keeps on working unwaveringly. When Hannes goes home, Schorsch goes on working. Hannes is a temporary factory worker. Schorsch is a lightweight robot. Manfred Kirchberger, Plant Manager, says the efficiency there is unique: “We produce industrial drives and controllers for manufacturing equipment. At our customers’ plants, the quantities often reach millions.” At the GWE, however, annual output lies between 5,000 and a quarter of a million. That is not enough to warrant investments in a fully automatic production line. But manual work on its own would be too expensive.

Production planners in Erlangen are therefore constantly looking for the optimum course for each product line. What should a worker do? What should a machine do? How can their interactions be optimized? “There is no economical off-the-shelf automation system for production on our scale,” says Kirchberger. “As a result, we have to systematically build up experience and share it with other Siemens plants all over the world.”

Why flexible production is a must

On top of that, customer requirements are changing faster than ever, making it increasingly important for production lines to be flexible. “Here in the production halls, nothing is where it was just a few years ago,” Kirchberger points out. The GWE is a classic example of the art of change in manufacturing. Constant and rapid adaptation is only possible as a result of the workforce’s willingness to embrace change, coupled with state-of-the-art technologies such as product design and production planning simulation, 3D printing and intelligent evaluation of data from end to end. At the GWE and other plants, for example at Siemens’ “Digital Factory” in Amberg, Germany, the company is setting new benchmarks for advanced manufacturing.

In a plain building next to the Erlangen plant, product developers, production experts and “old hands” from manufacturing immerse themselves in the virtual world together. Stefan Krug, responsible for digital planning methods at the GWE, explains the approach: “Before we build a new product, we first create and optimize its digital twin using Siemens’ PLM software.”

Product developers and production experts can view the digital twin – a realistic representation of a product or process before it is produced in the real world – in detail as a three-dimensional animated model. In this digital space, they can rotate and turn it and test associated assembly processes in a simulated manufacturing environment. The upshot is that design teams can identify problems and make improvements at the earliest stage.

Anton Huber, Head of Siemens’ Digital Factory Division, puts it this way: “No phase of the value-added process will be implemented in the future without first developing and testing its digital counterpart, starting at the idea phase and extending to product and production engineering, commissioning, use and new services.” As a result, products will reach their market faster and in a more targeted manner. But no matter how good a model is in the digital world, a person or a machine or a combination of the two will ultimately put the components together.

Robots that work with people

In the Electronics Manufacturing Plant Michael Brucksch, a Technical Business Administrator, is guiding the arm of a lightweight robot called R2-D2 and teaching it a new task in the facility’s robotics experimental lab. A major advantage of lightweight robots is that even skilled production workers can program them. In addition, the robots do not have to work in areas cordoned off from humans. Thanks to their design and smooth movements, they pose no hazard to people.

Nearby, Sebastian Wiemann is building a gripper device – the robotic equivalent of a hand. “We used to utilize milled components for projects like this,” he says. “Now we print them. That is faster and cheaper than conventional methods. Last week, this enabled us to reduce the cost of a part from about 500 euros to around 80.” Plant Manager Kirchberger does not need to instruct his employees to make improvements like this. “Our people like to try things out. We give them the scope to come up with innovative ideas and turn those ideas into a success,” he states.

Many processes associated with factory automation that have undergone successful trials in Erlangen are entering everyday use at Siemens’ factories throughout the world and at Siemens’ customers’ facilities. Many of these developments are examples of the Fourth Industrial Revolution which Siemens is helping to shape – with determination, courage and the necessary vigor. But in spite of all this, experts expect that human beings will continue to play a major role in production for the foreseeable future. “We are not automating like crazy but with common sense,” says Michael Brucksch. And his colleague Florian Riedrich, who is responsible for robotic technology at the Electronics Manufacturing Plant, adds: “We don’t want a factory that is devoid of people. What we foresee is a combination of people and machinery.”

© SIEMENS 2017