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Flexible machines deliver at batch size 1

Flexible machines deliver at batch size 1

The experts at Lenze highlight Industry 4.0 as a technology concept for intelligent automation, and explain how it can provide smart and flexible machines capable of production at batch size 1.

Lenze, as an automation provider, views Industry 4.0 as simply another phase in the increasing automation that has been underway for many years. Automation is being consistently advanced by digitisation, networking and the use of new communication systems. This progress allows automation providers to provide smart solutions that satisfy the changing demands of makers of machinery who in turn must fulfil the market needs. One of these demands is the growing individualisation of products. A car maker no longer simply offers a wide range of models, nowadays buyers can select a mix of options that is only produced once for their car. This is batch size 1. 

The trend is common-place in the food industry. A good example is the supermarket milk. Today customers can choose between four or more carton sizes and various grades from whole, semi-skimmed, skimmed and organic. Also the range has been more recently joined by soya, goats, lactose free and flavoured. Do we drink more milk as a result? No. So we can say that batch sizes are getting smaller all the time, while the variance increases for the same quantity produced. Were consumers to be offered the choice of designing their own milk carton on the Internet, we would soon reach a batch size of one. 

There are many other examples of shrinking batch sizes on supermarket shelves. Milk producers and their suppliers of production machines must therefore think about how they are going to produce at reasonable cost. Setting up a different machine for each specification would be too expensive. So the machine builder has to design a machine that can do everything.

One approach is machine modularisation. Modules are added or removed in the production process or quickly retooled via smart software. Different packaging sizes, materials, contents and much more can thus be processed, packed and palletised on a single machine. For the machine builder the first priority used to be perfecting a machine to manufacture products with the greatest possible efficiency to the highest possible quality. Now flexibility is demanded, but with the same high quality. Machine builders need partnership with automation experts such as Lenze more than ever before, particularly in view of the difficulties in recruiting and retaining skilled engineers.

The deployment of advanced automatic technology, supported by the latest IT and communication technologies, is essential to modern production today. Given a batch size approaching 1 for a product that sells for low cost, everything stands and falls on efficient and effective production planning. Whilst plant-based planning might be up to the job, the complexity involved would be excessive. 

So logically speaking, it makes sense if the product being manufactured can communicate with the machine, and similarly the machine with other machines involved in the process. System boundaries blur for machine builders between their own and downstream/upstream machines in the production process. Lenze uses 4.0 technologies to develop intelligent automation systems for machine builders that are easy to integrate. These systems must enable producers to easily create and control individual products.

Lenze has developed a cloud solution for security of machine and production data. The machine builder is provided with all relevant machine information summarised in the cloud. In this way he can identify faults and remedy them immediately without looking into the customer's production data. As cloud solutions are vulnerable to attack by hackers, Lenze and a partner have co-developed a predictive maintenance solution that is one hundred percent secure by today's standards.

As awareness of Industry 4.0 rises, many machine builders have identified the means by which they can and must respond to the challenges of the market. The Lenze is on integrated software and hardware that generates new opportunities for flexible production.

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