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Industry 4.0 on legacy machines

Industry 4.0 on legacy machines

Industry 4.0 isn’t just about greenfield sites or brand new machinery. Technologies such as sensors and HMIs mean just about any machine can be turned into a smart machine, as we learn from Bosch Rexroth.

All manufacturing companies, whether large or small, are under constant pressure from their customers for their products to be better quality, lower cost and available quicker. Industry 4.0 should be seen by manufactures as an umbrella term for a toolkit of available technology to enable them to deliver these customer requirements.

The real-time gathering and processing of data from sensors will enable quality checks at the point of manufacture, economical batch sizes to be reduced (making production far more flexible) and machine and process health to be monitored, allowing maintenance to be predicted and scheduled in to natural breaks, rather than breakdown repairs. Lower cost to the customer is one possible outcome of improved productivity by the manufacturer.

But what about legacy machinery? Do you have to throw out all of that existing investment? Not so. Even the oldest machinery can be modernised for the factory of the future, with a little help of sensors and display technology, as Bosch Rexroth proved at its own factory with a century-old lathe.

The 300kg, cast-iron lathe dates back to 1887, when it was purchased for the equivalent of around €30,000. Powered manually by a foot treadle, the lathe was initially used to manufacture parts for magneto ignition devices. It has taken pride of place as a key Bosch tool for many years, and was an integral part of the company’s first technical breakthroughs at the end of the 19th Century. The lathe was even used by Bosch’s founder, Robert Bosch, in the early years following its purchase.

The financial and sentimental value of the lathe are not to be underestimated, which is why, when Industry 4.0 capability was first developed at Bosch Rexroth, the treadle lathe was one of the first pieces of legacy machinery to be upgraded. The resulting construction was the first of its kind in the world.

The company began by mounting sensors on the machine that, when linked to an IoT Gateway, collected data on performance parameters such as temperature, pressure, vibration, power consumption, angle inclination and rotational speed. The IoT gateway could then transmit this data to a monitor on the plant floor, which displayed the results to the treadle lathe’s operators in a way that was both comprehensible and actionable.

Two significant outcomes were achieved. First, the surface finish of a turned part is governed by a combination of rotational speed and traverse speed of the cutting tool. The monitor was programmed to show the minimum and maximum speed windows. The operator can then adjust their pedalling speed of the treadle to keep within the window, thus guaranteeing a quality surface finish. It would also protect the lathe tool from damage or wear. Second, operators could now pick up on changes to the belt drive that may previously have been missed. As the belt grows older, it begins to slip between the drive wheel and the spindle that carries the workpiece. The sensors would be able to recognise deviations and notify a maintenance worker once the pre-defined threshold had been reached.

The treadle lathe is a good example of how legacy machinery – even that which dates back to the first Industrial Revolution – can become part of a connected, digitalised infrastructure. Furthermore, it demonstrates how Industry 4.0 capability can continue to achieve a return on investment from machinery that is over a century-old.

Perhaps, then, Industry 4.0 is not a revolution, but an evolution after all. As the treadle lathe case study demonstrates, we are not required to replace machinery outright, but rather adapt our existing assets to a new way of working. The challenge lies in how one can do this. Evolutionary theory dictates that only the strongest or most adaptive species can survive. For manufacturers, however, this does not mean that the lucky, gifted or wealthy will be blessed with an unfair advantage. Rather, it is those prepared to learn, develop and create that will be the frontrunners of our technological evolution.

Bosch Rexroth has produced a white paper that offers a roadmap to adopting Industry 4.0 without impacting on current production. It can be freely downloaded from the company’s website at

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