New tech could allow production lines to automatically adjust to changes
By Ben Coxworth
November 2, 2011
Factories are a bit like living things. They are made up of a number of individual systems, and a change made to any one of those systems can have an affect on other systems down the line. In the case of living things, however, all of the systems are united by the organism's DNA - if a change is made to one system, the others adjust automatically. Such is not the case in factories, however, where humans must go in and make all the changes manually. Not only is this costly and labor-intensive, but it can also result in errors. Researchers from Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Optronics, System Technologies and Image Exploitation are addressing this problem by trying to make factories more like living things - as they put it, they're trying to decode "factory DNA."
Most often, changes are introduced in factories when companies switch from making one product to another, or replace one machine with another. The IT systems running factory assembly lines have no way of "reading" new machines on their own, so operators must manually enter the parameters of those machines (in the form of alpha-numeric code) into the system. Mistakes can be made when that code is being entered, which often won't be detected until the line is up and running again.
The Fraunhofer team likens the current state of factories to that of computers several years ago, when users had to upload a separate driver every time they installed a new peripheral. Now, of course, computer users just plug new devices into their machine's USB port, and the computer automatically recognizes the device.
The researchers hope to bring that sort of technology to factories, complete with a cable that links each machine to the IT system. Currently, they are studying Daimler AG's ProVis.Agent production management system, which coordinates approximately 2,000 machines involved in the production of the C-Class Mercedes. The team has created a translator that takes the different digital device descriptions, and converts them all into a standard machine language known as Computer Aided Engineering Exchange (CAEX). That translated information is then transferred to a unique data storage system.
The translator and storage system combined are reportedly enough to make a USB-like system possible. According to Fraunhofer, once such a system was in place, it would allow a computer to establish new process control plans for assembly lines without human intervention.
Although the technology has not been implemented at the Daimler plant, it has been demonstrated on a miniaturized model assembly line.