By Holger Paul
Sometimes, great leaps forward in technology can happen quietly. Since the term "Industrie 4.0" was coined at the Hannover Messe trade fair almost ten years ago, thousands of companies have been thinking about how to achieve the goal of fully networked production that enables completely flexible manufacturing. There are already lots of test lines and production units, but, almost unnoticed by the public, the sensor manufacturer SICK AG has gone a big step further: In Hochdorf, a suburb of the city of Freiburg, a new smart factory spanning more than 1000 square meters has been built over a period of two years. And this facility realizes the dream of Industrie 4.0: "Here we can produce completely flexible right down to batch sizes of one, and at the same time use resources just as efficiently as in mass production," comments Bernhard Müller, who is the SICK manager responsible for Industrie 4.0. In other words, as the family company has announced, the networked factory with autonomous, digital production and control processes has already become a reality in Hochdorf. "We are the first company in our industry to take such a bold measure," adds Joachim Schultis, Head of Operations Photoelectric Sensors & Fibers at SICK AG, who is proud of the first step made by his company. It now aims to build on this success.
Production modules constantly reorganize themselves
SICK AG has an annual turnover of more than 1.6 billion euros (2018) and almost ten thousand employees. In 2018, the company spent nearly 12 percent of its turnover on research and development. However, a visit to the factory initially only demonstrates that the SICK management appreciate the value of understatement. Nothing about the rather unassuming outer appearance of the hall in the Hochdorf industrial park indicates that industrial history is being written inside. In the hall itself, the first thing a visitor notices is how quiet production is and how bright the room is, thanks to a high roof made by a carpenter's workshop. But when you take a closer look at the machines and workplaces, it quickly becomes apparent that this facility is fundamentally different. The production lines have no rigid layout, and neither do the individual stations process the jobs in accordance with another fixed pattern: Instead, the twelve automated production modules, which make up the modular production system with a network of hybrid and manual workplaces, constantly organize and reorganize themselves depending on the scope of the job, material procurement and the time schedule. In addition, driverless transport systems ensure that the required parts reach the right production module at the right time. If the vehicles are not needed, they drive back to the charging station. "The big advantage of this factory is its flexibility. If a job cannot be continued for a certain reason, the production modules switch to a different order," explains Volker Weisenhorn, Head of Operations Logistics at SICK AG. This also requires production and logistics to merge into a single unit. "Of course, the production modules independently request material transport and logistics provides them, in a collaborative network between humans and automated guided carts (AGCs)," adds Weisenhorn. "So it is not only production that works with a digital twin, but also logistics. We no longer separate this in the factory; production and logistics together are known as Operations."
The factory is still in the ramp-up phase
At its factory in Hochdorf, SICK can already manufacture numerous product families - photoelectric, contrast and color sensors - in accordance with completely individual customer wishes, giving the company a decisive advantage in the global market. "For instance, the whole world can build photoelectric barriers, but when it comes to offering special functions at reasonable prices, Industrie 4.0 production such as what we have in Hochdorf offers a crucial advantage," says Joachim Schultis. The factory is still in the ramp-up phase. Eventually, twelve product families are to be manufactured there, with a maximum production capacity of 1.2 million units per year. According to the company, more than 500,000 product variants are possible. "The biggest advantage is the high degree of transparency in the manufacturing process," says Schultis. "We determine error sources and potential for improvement throughout the entire value creation process much quicker here," he explains.
As a result, the requirements placed on employees are also changing; in Hochdorf, the factory manager no longer plans the deployment of machines, but instead has the task of continuously raising the efficiency of the entire factory. Currently, 13 SICK employees work there in single-shift operation. Although an Industrie 4.0 facility needs fewer people than the factories of the past, Volker Weisenhorn insists that they remain indispensable: Humans are still superior to machines in control and also in some production steps that require a great deal of skill. It is also important to continuously monitor and improve the whole process. "People are always needed to advance machine intelligence," sums up Weisenhorn. And this is a continuous process, adds Bernhard Müller: "Production in line with Industrie 4.0 is never finished; it is always developing," he concludes.