Greener and faster:
the NEXT generation
of machines

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NEXT
Europe has long been a world leader in machine building, and now the NEXT project is helping to ensure that Europe maintains that position in the face of increasing competition from emerging economies and growing environmental concerns.

Europe’s knowledge and innovative drive powered the industrial revolution, introducing machines into the production process and changing society forever. Since then, Europe’s position as a leader in machine building has remained unchanged. But because of increased competition from other parts of the world, as well as pressure to reduce the environmental impact of the industry, following a traditional approach to machine building and manufacturing processes is no longer an option.

The NEXT project, bringing together 23 partners from 8 EU Member States and Switzerland, is ensuring that Europe stays ahead of the game in the field of production systems and devices. The project has five main aims: to make production machines more environmentally friendly; to make them more autonomous; to improve performance; to develop a new business paradigm for machinery; and to share new knowledge.

The NEXT results are promising in all of these areas. Project coordinator Dr Rikardo Bueno of Spain’s FATRONIK-Tecnalia is confident that the impacts will be felt far and wide. He expects some of the project partners to be using new machines within a year of the project ending, and foresees other companies taking up the new designs soon afterwards.

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‘This is the first time that there has been such a large project, bringing together all the most relevant companies,’ says Dr Bueno. Between them the partners represent the sectors that use machine tools the most: automotives and electronics.

Green machines

The aim when starting the project was to use recycled materials for machine elements, to reduce the energy consumption of machines by at least 25 %, to cut waste to zero, and to make the dismantling and recycling of machines the norm.

The NEXT project has made great strides towards achieving these goals. The prototype ‘green machines’ developed by the project consume significantly less energy and water than traditional machines, while building the machines also uses fewer resources.

These green machines are all close to the market. No less valuable for machine users is a new evaluation process for assessing the lifecycle of a new machine. The system will help potential customers to choose between the range of processes available and select the most appropriate machine. This will save companies time and money and thus boost competitiveness.

Easier to use

Any machine operator will say that their job would be easier if their apparatus needed less human instruction. The NEXT team has achieved this. The autonomous prototypes of milling machines have the bonus capacities to self-monitor and self-correct.

The automatic recognition of machining tasks and processes will be welcomed by machine users. It is achieved through thermal compensation (which stabilises the performance of a component), monitoring through sensors and the recognition of signals. Other NEXT innovations include automatic tuning for control. Setting up a machine for working on a new part is currently very time consuming, but automatic recognition means that this can be done in minutes.

New frontiers for production systems and devices

Ultimately what will make European machine builders more competitive is improving the performance of machines. The NEXT team uses new lightweight materials with high damping capacity and good thermal stability properties for machine components, enabling machines to work faster. The new materials also increase the lifespan of components, saving businesses money and saving on resources. For example, traditional cast iron is being replaced by lighter materials, thereby saving power consumption.

New ways of doing business

NEXT has also made breakthroughs in non-technical areas. The team was aware that both customer and machine builder could gain from changing the way they work together.

The team looked at various ways of transforming the usual commercial relationship into a long-term partnership, including a redistribution of responsibilities for the construction of the machine, its operation and its maintenance. In such a set-up, the risks of constructing and then using a machine are shared. The user benefits from the increased involvement of the machine builder during the apparatus’ lifecycle, while the machine builder sees to what extent the customer is satisfied and modifies its products accordingly. The machine builder will also have more control over how the machine is used, as well as access to old parts for re-use.

Sharing the knowledge

The NEXT team has also carried out training sessions on new business models and evaluating quality. In addition to this, it has set up an e-learning platform in order to ensure that the new knowledge acquired during NEXT is disseminated as widely as possible.

While large machine building companies are likely to be the main benefactors from the project results, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) will not be left out. A new SME office established by the project partners is making sure that small companies all around Europe are aware of the research being done by NEXT. The project also generated business for some SMEs not involved directly in NEXT by forging links between them and the larger companies participating in the project. Sometimes an SME can develop the solutions that a larger company is working on, or supply specific components.

It seems likely that Europe will remain the heartland of machine building for some time to come. This is good news for the continent’s machine builders and also for the manufacturing sector as a whole: faster, environmentally friendly machines mean faster, environmentally friendly production.