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Production Level 4: Your Way to Autonomous Production

Reading Time: 3 Minutes 15.02.2021 Currents & Trends

The latest project by SmartFactory KL

Automation is the journey, autonomy the reward. At least when it comes to the development of autonomous driving. But what about production in small and mid-sized enterprises? This is what SmartFactory KL has been working on most recently.

The SmartFactory KL technology initiative was established more than 15 years ago by the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI). proALPHA is among the founding members of the association. This non-profit organization brings together more than 50 leading companies to develop new technologies for the factories of the future by means of a model manufacturing process. They use a modular sample factory to implement use cases and test concepts under realistic conditions. Thanks to the active participation of its partners, SmartFactory KL has already brought the first Industry 4.0 products, solutions, and standards to the market.

How autonomous should the future production be?

The most recent project of SmartFactory KL, the Production Level 4 demonstrator, pushes the topic of the Industrial Internet of Things further ahead. The title Production Level 4 chosen by the project founders is based on a phase model from the automotive industry, which divides the steps for developing autonomous driving into 5 levels. In this model, level 5 describes complete autonomous locomotion without any human intervention. "We don't strive for complete autonomy in production. The smart factory of the future is all about level 4 where human beings are deliberately at the center of production as decision-makers and persons responsible," says Dr. Markus Berg, head of development of Business Processes at proALPHA. He's responsible for the research cooperation with SmartFactory KL and has been involved with the project from the beginning.

Opportunities for SMEs

With this project, proALPHA and SmartFactory KL want to push automation in manufacturing SMEs with actual use cases. This is due to the fact that the shortage in skills will have a major impact on those companies in particular. For one thing, because they are often based outside of urban centers and secondly, because well-trained, young talents expect better career opportunities from bigger companies. State-of-the-art, automated production not only helps to compensate the shortage in staffing levels but also makes the company more appealing to applicants.

What is possible and what makes sense

In the Production Level 4 demonstrator, SmartFactory KL continuously advances the interaction between humans, IT, and autonomous systems for maximum agility in the manufacture of products with lot size 1. The goal is to provide the persons with all relevant and necessary information for controlling the production, and to support and relieve them as far as possible with the automation. Concerning the implementation, Berg states: "The plant must be robust and able to respond to external influences in an agile way. This means that the entire plant must be interlinked in a way that the production planning can run automatically and be reconfigured and retooled flexibly. Last but not least, this also includes the ability to learn autonomously to ensure continuous improvement."
The lessons learned from the demonstrator hence provide valuable practical knowledge, and not only for the further development of the ERP solution. The software consultants also acquire useful know-how on state-of-the-art technologies from which their customers can benefit.

ERP systems are the key

In this respect too, the ERP system acts as the control center for production and as the data hub between production and the upstream and downstream processes. This ranges from the order entry in proALPHA to the fully automatic data transfer to the plant through to the production start. The plant regularly reports statuses to the ERP software, giving all employees and the management a real-time overview of the production process.

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