By Ralf Heimann
Sitting in an internal meeting three years ago, Olaf Korbanek could not believe his ears. The Head of IT at a manufacturer of drive components and cooling systems had merely wanted to clarify how the computers in the materials warehouse could be given a new operating system. But the visiting experts told him: "You also have a very different problem."
The reason was the tsunami that hit the Fukushima region in March 2011. The resulting threat to the mechanical engineering company KTR Systems in Rheine had been discussed once, but nobody had done anything about it.The tsunami had flattened the last factory to produce a key spare part for the KTR warehouse.
Today, the warehouse has 17 aisles, offering space for 9,000 pallets and 88,000 small parts containers. It is largely used to store clutches and clutch components, which KTR delivers to its 24 subsidiaries, 90 sales partners, small farmers and international corporations. Korbanek does not look like someone who is easily worried. But when he talks of the days following that meeting, it is easy to understand how serious the situation was. "Everyone knew we had a serious problem," he says. The spare part was not the only issue, however: There was also no maintenance contract to safeguard KTR’s access to the last available parts in the worst-case scenario.
Just a single bolt of lightning in a stormy fall could have put parts of the warehouse out of operation for days or even weeks - in a market in which customers depend on companies delivering quickly and reliably. Founded in 1959, the company's slogan is "Made for Motion." The opposite would have been unthinkable.
Modernizing the warehouse quickly would have cost 1.4 million euros - money that was not to be found in any budget. In less than a week, the decision was made.
Partner Viastore from Stuttgart, which had drawn KTR's attention to its logistics gap at the original meeting, returned to the company. Viastore had built the materials warehouse in 2003, and the Stuttgart-based system integrator was now to lead the retrofitting operation. The fact that Korbanek and his contact at Viastore already knew one another and worked well together was one of the most important requirements for the project.
Retrofits are becoming increasingly popular in Germany. An average of 85 percent of existing systems are not yet connected, and the average age of machine parks is almost 20 years - ancient in an age of digitalization and Industrie 4.0. But replacing older machines with new ones is often less economical than it might appear. A better option is often retrofitting, which is about more than just new motors or replacing wearing parts: It can give machinery and systems totally new functions and features, which could be a crucial competitive advantage. In the future, German mechanical engineering companies will collaborate more with partners from Europe, China and the USA. They have requirements not only of the reliability of their partners, but also of their machinery, which increasingly needs to be able to connect and communicate worldwide.
This usually demands deep intervention into the software.
In Rheine, the operation begins on paper, with a maintenance contract being concluded with Viastore. KTR now has access to a hotline provided by the Stuttgart-based company from 6 am to 8 pm, even on Saturdays.
Next, the crucial problem faced by the mechanical engineering company needed to be addressed: Every three warehouse rack aisles, each with thousands of parts, are monitored by a control computer in a switchgear cabinet. If it fails, the shelf aisles fail too - potentially causing crippling delays to vital deliveries.
The solution involves a local anesthetic for the warehouse control system. The Viastore team removes the control computer from the switchgear cabinet, reconnects it on a table and removes the spare part that is no longer available, a frequency converter, from the first rack aisle. This device controls the electric motors of the retrieval machines that pick the containers and pallets from the shelves. Next, the team replaces the rest of the technical equipment: distance measurement devices, cable chains, the bus system responsible for the data flow. Then the second rack aisle, then the third. It all goes smoothly. After three days the end is in sight, after four it is all over - in half the expected time and with no complications for warehouse operations. The new frequency converters also result in an energy saving of 20 percent, as they recycle the braking energy from the retrieval machines.
According to the company behind the retrofit measures, it usually takes around 18 months for the investment costs to pay off. Modern sensor technology and digitalizing existing systems can make production and logistics planning significantly more efficient: Users can get five to ten years more use out of machinery by equipping it with an IoT gateway.
Head of IT Olav Korbanek agrees that these are all good arguments. He knows that, if lightning were to strike KTR Systems next fall and cause a frequency converter to fail, the error would be visible on the new terminals immediately. A call would go out to the new service hotline straight away, and technicians would come and replace the device.
It would be annoying, but not a major problem.