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Production plants adapt themselves to changing demands

30 May, 2014

A group of German organisations – including Festo and the fortiss research institute – have developed an open software architecture for automation systems that allows factory production components to network and configure themselves intelligently and autonomously.

Production components that can “plug and produce” is a key vision of Germany’s Industry 4.0 initiative. It fits in with the trend towards customised products and increasingly short product lifecycles. The project partners believe that flexible production systems with variable configurations will be an important element in future manufacturing systems.

The Plug & Play for Automation Systems (AutoPnP) project, sponsored by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, set out to develop a production plant that can be adapted rapidly to changing conditions using standardised subsystems and software architecture.

The project partners have developed a concept that makes it easy to initiate operation of production plant components at the level of individual processing stations.

The concept allows production stations to be combined as required. They register information about their abilities and material flow with a higher-level production planning and control system. This system then prepares a production plan appropriate to the layout of the facility, enabling production orders to be carried out flexibly. The aim is to reduce the effort involved in configuring and programming control systems. Different products can be planned and produced with minimal interruption.

“The principle is similar to that of a USB interface on a computer that enables ancillary devices to register directly with the host computer and communicate with it,” explains Bernd Kärcher, head of mechatronic component research at Festo. “Individual components will be able to register with the production plant in the factory of the future in just the same way.”

The vision goes further. The next target is to achieve decentralised intelligence, with the components themselves assuming control functions from the master computer.

The AutoPnP project has produced demonstration modules that show how future factories could adapt their configurations as production demands change

As part of the three-year project, fortiss and Festo have produced initial prototypes of a PnP-capable module for use in a modular production system. It consists of various processing stations and a mobile robot platform, called Robotino, that operates as a flexible transport system.

Each station has its own controllers – in some cases, from different manufacturers. Any number of stations can be combined arbitrarily in any desired layout, and up to 18 different products and variants can be manufactured. Users can equip workstations with different modules to adapt them rapidly and safely to new operating conditions.

The demonstration is being shown to the public at the Automatica show in Munich in June 2014. “With the demonstration unit, we are showing on the basis of a specific example how preparation times in production can be minimised and the adaptability of factories increased,” explains Festo Didactic product manager, Dr Dirk Pensky. “Users are thereby given ideas for implementing similar scenarios in future.”

AutoPnP is part of the Autonomik programme, whose partners include the Technical University of Berlin, fortiss, Dussmann, Festo, the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA, and Schunk.

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