At the siemens plant in vienna, robots do the work for each other

In Vienna, Siemens is researching how machines in the factory coordinate themselves and how products give the robots the construction order.

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At Siemens’ SIMEA plant in Vienna, Vladimir Zahorcak and his colleagues are researching the factory of the future. The head of the CPPS research project at Siemens Corporate Technology ( CT ) leans over and speaks into a commercially available Amazon Echo: "Alexa, trigger the self test."The system then tests itself for any errors and shortly afterwards declares by voice output that it is ready for production. When Zahorcak then gives the order to start production, the machines get to work.

At the siemens plant in vienna, robots do the work for each other

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In the current prototype, several production modules are in use: among others, a self-propelled robot including a conveyor belt on top, a Kuka robot arm with assembly and transport skills, and a robot that can screw devices together. The goal is for these machines to control and coordinate themselves to produce the desired product.

Various prerequisites must be met for this to happen: Among other things, the devices must communicate with each other and receive instructions on what they are supposed to do in the first place. This instruction does not come from a human being, but from the product itself, which communicates its construction plan to the machines – a "digital twin" of the product is used for this purpose, i.e. a digital image from which the robots can read out the information.

At the siemens plant in vienna, robots do the work for each other

At the siemens plant in vienna, robots do the work for each other

"The production machines themselves know from each other what skills they have, that is, what they are each capable of," says Zahorcak. In this way, they can pass on to each other the tasks they are capable of completing: The gripper arm can lift the product from A to B, but it cannot screw in screws – instead, it passes the production part to the screwdriving robot.

Mass of individuals

What such processes are needed for? The answer to this question is "mass customization": A product tailored to each individual customer can be produced in large quantities. On the one hand, this is interesting when B2B customers order power supplies for industrial control systems from the Siemens plant in Vienna – but it is probably much more exciting for products for end customers, for example, when customers put together their own sneakers with customized lettering. "The goal is to automatically produce completely customizable products – such as sneakers – without having to laboriously change the configuration of the system each time," says Zahorcak, citing one of many future application examples.

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Along the way, experts are constantly coming up with new things. For example, it is inconvenient for humans when machines communicate with each other without the employee being able to follow the conversation and decisions of the machines. Accordingly, communication is now logged on a screen. "It’s kind of like a Twitter for our production machines," says Zahorcak.

At the siemens plant in vienna, robots do the work for each other

At the siemens plant in vienna, robots do the work for each other

Testing of blockchain technology will begin this year, for example to combat product piracy and to make supplier management more efficient via smart contracts. And finally, the collected data will also be used to optimize production via machine learning.

Deployment before the end of the year

Stefan Petsch , head of the SIMEA plant in Vienna , reports that the first results from Zahorcak’s research into the self-controlling factory will also be implemented in regular production before the end of 2019. Standardization of products and processes is less of a problem here because the group’s own standards are simply used.

Current product developments are already being given a digital twin, i.e. a virtual deposit of the respective construction plans. According to Petsch, the plan is to gradually introduce self-coordinating production modules into the hall, thereby increasing flexibility and productivity in the plant.

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Control via Alexa is currently still running on the Amazon Cloud, as Zahorcak confirmed in response to a question from futurezone: For a broader application, however, Siemens will probably rely on its own cloud solution MindSphere. But at least, Zahorcak concludes by demonstrating: even in the factory, Alexa can tell her grotty jokes on demand.

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