Factories of the future: assembly-line machines do their own 'thinking'
A major consumer of time and money in the manufacturing of aircraft, motor vehicles, electronic equipment and other products is adapting assembly lines to produce different sizes, shapes and styles of such complex items. Work must stop along the line while machines are reconfigured to change how raw materials are cut, holes are drilled, and rivets are punched into place.
Each machine in a factory needs to be equipped with specific instructions – a sort of recipe – to carry out a certain task in a certain way. This decades-old technique could be on the verge of changing. An EU-funded project has developed assembly-line machines that can do their own “thinking.”
“Our goal is to avoid these recipes, and instead place intelligence directly into the machine itself,” says Michael Peschl of the Hamburg, Germany-based firm Harms & Wende. “Rather than give the machine the set-up information from outside – how to do something with such-and-such settings – we can put the intelligence right into the machine.”
Peschl coordinated the XPRESS project - short for “Flexible Production Experts for Reconfigurable Assembly Technology.” By designing assembly-line machines so they can perform on command – not unlike robots that can follow verbal instructions – factories can meet the rapidly changing needs of consumers and industrial customers, while developing high-quality products at lower costs.
The XPRESS team has developed an intelligent machine called a “manufactron.” Peschl explains how the system works: “Normally, when you cut metal to different shapes and thicknesses, or when you drill a hole, you have to programme the machine in the factory accordingly. With XPRESS, the manufactrons receive information to drill a hole, and based on this information, the machine itself decides which kind of drill-bit to use and the speed of the drill. We describe the task to the machine, but the manufactron takes it from there – analysing the information and choosing the proper tools and settings.”
“Nowadays, we have human experts who decide how a job should be optimally performed,” continues Peschl. “Our idea is for the machine to decide internally how to do it, so we have included the expertise into the machine.”
According to Peschl, the breakthrough is ideal for the aerospace industry. Different models of aircraft have different body shapes, different types of seats and cabins, and so on. All of this affects the shape and size of the fuselage. This means that production lines have to switch from one variety of aeroplane to another – using different machines and different set-ups for the machines. This costs time and money. “XPRESS can help significantly reduce costs by having the machines themselves adapt to different aeroplane models,” says Peschl.
“Products used to be more standardised. Today, customers want more varieties and customised products. A lot of time, effort and expertise are needed to change from one product to another,” adds Peschl. “The challenge is to produce as many product varieties on one production line, with minimal change-over and manual work.”
In addition to aerospace, the XPRESS technology has also been tested in electronics, for manufacturing industrial switches; and in automobiles, for making car bodies.
XPRESS has shown that the time for setting up production lines can be reduced by up to 50 percent, change-over time can be cut by up to 80 percent, unexpected changes in production volumes can be dealt with better, workers can be more flexible when production cycles and requirements change, and that the new XPRESS technology can be woven into existing factories and machines.
“We have managed, for the first time, to enable machines to perform by only receiving information on the task,” states Peschl. “This is really a breakthrough.””