Festo invests in future smart factory vision
Smart Factory, Industry 4.0, Smart Manufacturing: these and other largely vendor-driven collaborations around the world have the same overriding objective – to develop smart manufacturing technologies that take plant-wide productivity to new heights.
The excitement being generated by this movement has some manufacturers concerned that change is coming too fast. Dr. Eberhart Veit, CEO of global automation giant Festo, offers this reassurance: Change is going to be evolutionary, not revolutionary, and very customer-centric. Only those smart technologies offering “true customer benefits” will succeed.
Festo expects to be workIng more closely than ever with customers tailoring these technologies to their needs. “Customers expect more and more customer-specific solutions,” says Dr. Veit. “They are not willing to take standard ones, and they will not wait.”
Festo is participating in Germany’s Industry 4.0 initiative while making major investments to reap its benefits. The company is building two facilities at a total cost of €108m ($153 million) that will increase its capability to design and test future automation technologies and processes, often in collaboration with customers.
Though only partially completed, the high-rise Automation Centre already is the most visibly striking structure on the Festo campus in Esslingen, near Stuttgart. Nearby in Ostfildern-Scharnhausen, the Technology Plant will benchmark new products and processes.
In Festo’s vision of the future factory, control functions now residing at the top level of the automation pyramid will shift downwards, with intermediate components given the functionality to process orders dispatched from above. Such adaptive components will function collaboratively to form their own networks.
(One example of how Festo is preparing for this: The company has embarked on a multi-year program to develop its existing CPX modular electrical terminal series into a common platform for electrical and pneumatic automation with a common software infrastructure for both technologies. This CPX will control all automated processes, while still interfacing perfectly well with top-level host systems.)
Future smart production technologies will be more economical, flexible and adaptable, faster to set up and more energy efficient. Yet workers won’t disappear from the shop floor. In fact, there will be increased opportunities for closer collaboration between humans and technology in the manufacturing environment through concepts such as collaborative robotics.
Creating and commercializing these and other smart factory concepts will require changes of mindset. Greater inter-disciplinary collaboration will be paramount. “Closer collaboration will be required between the hardware designer and software programmer as devices become more intelligent,” says Dr. Veit, a mechatronic engineer himself.
Future manufacturing technology will be more knowledge-based, necessitating better knowledge management. It will be critically important to understand the factory on three levels – the plant as a whole, the end-to-end production processes within and the automation supporting each process.
That will place added emphasis on industrial education and training, an area in which the company already has a global presence through Festo Didactic, its industrial education division. Festo Didactic was further strengthened by the recent acquisition of North American-based Lab-Volt, a specialist in technical training and continuing education for electronics, electrical and mechanical engineering and telecommunications. The former Lab-Volt facility in Quebec City, which employs over 200, will play a major role in developing and producing training systems and education programs for the future factory.
This focus on education and training underscores Festo’s belief that the smart factory is a journey, not a destination. It will be continually evolving, and operators should take a long view about change. Festo has taken such a long view in product development through its unique Bionic Learning Network and Futures Concept.
Visitors to major trade shows have seen Festo’s experimental SmartBird fly and Bionic Kangaroo jump, but what it really gets out of the Bionic Learning Network is greater understanding of how nature achieves perfection in areas important to future product development goals, such as lightweight design, functional integration, enhanced connectivity and energy efficiency. This knowledge is being applied to prototypes of products that will enable future factories to achieve new levels of proficiency or efficiency.
For example, developing a mechanical kangaroo is providing Festo with deeper knowledge about energy recovery and storage. In the wild, a kangaroo recovers and stores energy each time it lands, then utilizes it on the next jump. The Bionic Kangaroo’s jumping capability combines pneumatic and electric automation storage – including electrical drives for precise movements, pneumatic actuators for dynamic jumping, Achilles tendons to store energy and re-use it again for the next jump, valve sensors, CECC control system and a mobile energy supply.
If this research seems esoteric, some products based on these mechanical imitations of nature are being incorporated into commercial applications, or will be shortly.
Festo’s award-winning Bionic Handling Assistant, inspired by the elephant trunk, is being adapted for use in robotic automation solutions. Its NanoForceGripper, inspired by the gecko, can grasp smooth-surface, fragile objects like drinking glasses or smartphone display modules with almost no expenditure of energy, making it a potential tool for enhanced pick and place systems.
Festo sees products that owe their origin to the Bionic Learning Network effort becoming catalysts for major gains in manufacturing productivity that can make the smart factory of tomorrow an even smarter investment for plant operators.