Intelligent Mechatronic Systems Technology

R&D Trend 2022 / 2023

When the ­Machine Reports Its Status

Even if the central concern of digitally integrated production or Industry 4.0 is networking industrial systems – the individual machine remains a central focus point of optimization. The reasons: Networking requires interfaces that must first be implemented on the individual machine. Also, topics such as resource efficiency are continuously addressed with development at the machine level.

Networked processes are based on data from individual systems. Machines – whether machine tools or robots – are being given more and more digital functions. There are several reasons for this. »Flexibility plays a role,« explains Festo’s Dr. Kriwet. »Users want to be able to retool systems more quickly. Therefore, many machine builders increasingly prefer to use electric instead of pneumatic drive technology, because you can approach intermediate positions with it.« In addition, since electric drive technology can control motion dynamics more precisely than pneumatic technology, it also achieves higher-quality results. 

Above all, however, integration of electronics makes it possible to continuously monitor the status and behavior of systems and to map them in digital system twins. This way, production and environmental influences can be detected and corrected, and adjustments can be simulated in advance. This allows processes to be set up more efficiently than ever before. In addition, it is possible to intervene at an early stage, if a process is not running smoothly or if machine damage is imminent. 

Sensors monitor machines and support their control

Sensors and network technologies integrated into machines are the basis needed for such functions. These components are becoming ever cheaper. »In the past, mechanical systems cost 100 euros and certain electronic or sensor equipment 200,« reports Dr. Kriwet. »Today mechanics still cost 100, but sensors and electronics only cost two euros. Now it makes sense to upgrade mechanics with a lot more electronics, sensors and communication technology.« 

The benefit is accurate monitoring of parameters such as temperatures, vibrations and energy consumption. Machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms can learn from such data, for example, what the »normal state« of a machine looks like – and warn when deviations from the target occur or problematic trends emerge. As a consequence, smart and predictive maintenance can be carried out before a machine breaks down. This facilitates completely new maintenance concepts. 

But also setting up machining processes and running them as best as possible benefits massively from intelligent data analysis based on sensor technology. »Analysis systems can reveal unrecognized potential for improvement in processes. In tests, suggested parameter changes have reached the quality of expert recommendations, and in some cases even exceeded them,« reports Dr. Volker Trinks, Vice President Technology and Tubing Development at SCHOTT AG. Scarce or expensive resources such as energy can thus be used more economically and efficiently than before. And there is another aspect to be considered: When machines optimize their processes to a certain extent autonomously with the help of AI, quality is achieved with greater consistency. In addition, know-how can be transferred easily and securely to different locations, if it is encapsulated as an automated process within a system.  

Hardware for digital functions must be durable

A prerequisite is careful selection of electronic components, because it is a problem for mechanical engineering that development cycles in the electronics sector are becoming shorter and shorter. Many electronic devices are developed with mass markets in mind, which want fast system changes in the interest of ever greater performance and capacity. Mechanical engineering needs greater consistency. Some companies now have enormous difficulties finding components that are available even for five years. This places immense demands on the flexibility of software and development. 

The danger of an expensive machine tool coming to a standstill, because a three-euro sensor fails or control software can no longer be updated, is also seen at KAPP NILES and Festo. From the point of view of the machine manufacturers, the goal must therefore be to find a good balance between the added value that can be achieved through digitalization and the associated expense and risk. Against this background, it is conceivable to keep electronic components in machines interchangeable. Retrofitting is also a viable option. 

Manufacturing processes for new materials and components

However, there is also optimization potential in the field of machines beyond electronic upgrading. Machining strategies for new, sustainable materials are just as much a concern for companies as are primary shaping processes that can be used, for example, to easily integrate components made of different materials. One topic here is primary shaping with metallic materials around components produced by other manufacturing methods. Injection molding is just as much a possibility as additive manufacturing. 

In the automotive sector in particular, there is a great need for R&D in the context of new drive concepts, shorter product cycles and new, environmentally friendly high-performance materials. »Just one example: e-mobility requires a different grinding technology, because finer surface structures are needed,« reports Martin Kapp from KAPP NILES. At Fraunhofer IPK, we develop technologies for high-performance machining that meet the highest requirements for productivity, reliability and resource efficiency.

New control methods make robotics universally applicable

When it comes to setting up manufacturing environments in such a way that they can be flexibly adapted to new tasks at any time, systems technology beyond the classic machine tool also becomes interesting. The robotics market, for example, expects double-digit growth rates in 2022, as the German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association VDMA reported earlier this year. Robots have »learned« a lot in recent years: Thanks to modern force control and new solutions for human-robot cooperation, they have evolved into universal and even mobile processing and assembly machines. 

Robots become particularly flexible when humans can safely work with them in a confined space. Then the path guidance does not have to be programmed down to the last millimeter. Humans can fine-tune the robot movement manually. Against this background, BMW’s Prof. Schramm sums up: »I am convinced that the further expansion of smart interaction between humans and robots will shape the future.« New concepts for programming, for example based on gestures, also facilitate rapid setup.

Our solutions for this topic area

  • Sensor technology for machines as original equipment or for retrofitting
  • Machining strategies and technologies for new materials
  • Force-controlled and manually guided robotics for processing and handling
  • Innovative manufacturing methods such as additive manufacturing or injection molding with metallic materials
  • Sensor integration in additively manufactured components

Q & A

Prof. Dr. h. c. Dr.-Ing. Eckart Uhlmann

Fraunhofer IPK


Technologies and Equipment for Digitally Integrated Production

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