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Roadmap for smarter, greener manufacturing machines

The EU-funded NEXT project brought together manufacturers and machine-tool developers to develop a new, modern approach to production machinery. The project delivered new process automation concepts and machine designs for faster, greener manufacturing, allowing production lines to be more easily adapted to changing demand.
The project’s results will help European manufacturers become more competitive. For example one of NEXT’s key achievements was the development of a much faster pick-and-place robot for production lines. Due to use of lightweight materials in its design, the robot is capable of acceleration rates of up to 8G (eight times the acceleration of gravity) when moving parts, a record for this type of machine. Apart from its incorporation into partners' production lines, the machine's development has led to at least one new patent.

The NEXT team also developed some important capabilities for the machines that carry out many of the critical cutting, drilling and machining operations on a production line, giving them the intelligence to recognise the part they are working on and to adjust cutting operations conditions and speed accordingly. This smart automation is in addition to the machines' ability to monitor operations and self-correct for any inaccuracies as necessary. 

As one of the biggest European projects undertaken in the production-machinery sector, the NEXT project involved 25 organisations and some 80 institutions across Europe. Its objective was ambitious – to develop a new generation of fast, clean and green production machines that would use fewer resources, reduce waste and speed up production times for European manufacturers.

The project was successful in achieving its targets throughout the production-equipment sector, from developing a new generation of production machinery that would be cheaper and lighter to manufacture, delivering better performance through faster operation speeds, to easier configuration for faster changes to production lines, and recyclability at the end of operational life.

Green machines

The research team met their objectives so well that the results they delivered have become known among the partners as the “green machine” initiative. The name signifies the concepts they developed, which makes machinery easier and cheaper to manufacture and to operate.

“For example, modern production lines tend to use a lot of water-based coolants, with all the problems of waste and environmental controls that this entails,” explains project coordinator Rikardo Bueno of Spain's Tecnalia in San Sebastian. “So we developed a highly-localised system that cools the cutting edge itself to a low temperature, making lubricants unnecessary. As a result the whole machining operation is that much cleaner, and we have less waste to deal with.” 

The project’s results have spread rapidly throughout Europe’s production-automation industry. Companies like Siemens, Fiat and Bosch have incorporated the NEXT concepts of lightweight, higher performance production machines that are easily reconfigurable into their own production lines, making it easier and more economical to have short production runs in response to changing market demands.

Intelligent production 

Dr Bueno is particularly proud of the abilities that the project has given to machine-tool builders and operators, who can now configure their machines to match the needs of specific production tasks.

“Increasing the software-defined configurability of machines benefits smaller suppliers and SMEs particularly,” he says, “since it allows them to price in advance the cost of limited production runs with much greater accuracy. This can make the difference between manufacturing at a profit or a loss.”

The rapid take-up of the results from NEXT by industry shows the strides forward the project took in modernising production machinery. It has also helped the partners in other ways, as Dr Bueno says: “At the time we launched the project we weren't sure of the importance of machine-tool research, or of the so-called 'factories of the future'. Now we know our direction – we have a roadmap – and we're continuing to develop the machines that future manufacturers will need.”

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