Self-Sustaining Manufacturing Systems Can Even Repair Themselves

via Photo Fraunhofer IPA
Self-repairing dispenser for engine production developed within the EU-funded SelSus research project by project partner Manufacturing Technology.

In the EU-funded project SelSus, Fraunhofer scientists are collaborating in a consortium with partners from research and industry to develop maintenance technology capable of forecasting machine downtimes in production before they occur. This allows plant managers to rectify faults before the machine breaks down. The system even corrects some defects automatically.

Unforeseen machine failures during ongoing production — plant managers dread them, technicians detest them and managers just sigh and factor them in. Such incidents prompt frantic repairs, drive up costs, adversely affect delivery reliability and ultimately weaken companies’ competitiveness. Yet often the problem is only a small defect or normal wear and tear. However, if left undetected, these can lead to major disruptions and production downtimes.

What would be helpful is a diagnostic procedure capable of monitoring the status of all components in the production line, identifying problems and weak points and informing the responsible employee in a timely manner. Based on what’s known as a decision-support system, maintenance personnel can then reach a decision and take targeted action to repair the defect. Ideally without having to interrupt production.

Precisely this is one of the underlying ideas, albeit not the only one, behind the ambitious SelSus project within which the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA is currently researching. “The aim is not just to monitor the status of the machines and components. Using intelligent software and sensor networks, the plan is to detect potential weak points or signs of wear and tear early enough for the system to be able to predict potential malfunctions,” explains Martin Kasperczyk from Fraunhofer IPA. The developed diagnostic models also directly provide suggestions or recommendations on how to rectify the problem. Project partner Electrolux in Pordenone, Italy, uses such a decision-support system. The system is capable of predicting with a certain probability potential failures on a press for washing machine facings and of diagnosing actually occurring malfunctions. The data needed to monitor the machine status is partially provided by sensors. They measure values such as energy consumption, temperature, oil pressure, particles in the oil or vibrations. Fraunhofer IPA and the participating consortium have also proved that the technology functions reliably in practice.

The system repairs itself

The system is even capable of sending control impulses to individual machines. A welding control on which a sensor has failed, for instance, can continue to work almost seamlessly in a secure mode, without any serious disruptions. The capability for self-repair and sustaining production has also given the project its name. The full project title of SelSus is “Health Monitoring and Life-Long Capability Management for Self-Sustaining Manufacturing Systems.”

However, first a number of technological hurdles had to be overcome. Martin Kasperczyk says: “One of the biggest challenges was analyzing the flood of data. After all, we’re talking here about predicting malfunctions or breakdowns of machines with a high degree of reliability. You don’t get there just by programming a couple of algorithms.”

Bayesian networks and sensor data

The experts are putting their faith in Bayesian networks. A Bayesian network is a mathematical model that can be used to compute the probabilities of a certain event or state occurring. The model represents a set of variables and their conditional dependencies. With the help of the data collected by the sensors, the software for example computes the probabilities of a specific high-stress cable breaking in the near future and, where applicable, signals that it should be replaced.

But the SelSus software relies not only on sensors. It also takes the technical characteristics of the machine and its performance parameters into account. This data has to be captured during installation and configuration of the system. Moreover, an extensive test run tells the system how the machine and its components behave in continuous operation and under load. Only then is it ready for use. The software also registers new data, for instance as a result of machine upgrades or deterioration in performance due to wear, enabling the system to learn.

The complexity of the SelSus concept is also evident from the fact that the software even interacts with operators by analyzing the causes of potential or existing malfunctions and proposing an appropriate course of action.

A system with self-healing capabilities from Coventry

Project partner The Manufacturing Technology Centre from Coventry, UK, has created a system with self-healing capabilities. In an engine production plant, a dispenser is attached to a robotic arm by means of vacuum. If the dispenser encounters resistance, rather than snapping off, it reacts flexibly. It loses the grip produced under vacuum and drops a few centimeters until it is stopped by springs. The springs then draw the dispenser back to its original position. Subsequent calibration ensures the tool is in the correct position — and after the brief interruption, the work process continues.

Learn more: Machinery that repairs itself


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Automated painting system can easily paint individual pieces

Photo Fraunhofer ITWM
Schematic representation of the 3D scanning process, in this example for a chair.

Reductions of 20 percent in paint use, 15 percent in energy consumption and 5 percent in production time – the SelfPaint automated painting system offers significant advantages compared to manual painting operations, which have previously been the preferred option. SelfPaint’s biggest advantage could well be that it is also suitable for painting individual pieces, known in industry as batch size 1.

Regardless of the industry, products are becoming increasingly customized; in the long term, production is set to be characterized by batch size 1. When it comes to the painting process, however, businesses are still up against some major challenges in this respect. After all, automation and customized paintwork have never exactly gone hand in hand. Only if numerous identical components need to be painted is it worth programming a painting robot to do the job. But today, such cases are becoming increasingly rare. In fact, in many industries well over half of all components are painted manually – because the extent of variety is simply too great for automation.

Automating painting while conserving resources

Now, the self-programming SelfPaint booth offers companies a solution to this problem for the first time – and opens the door to a wealth of savings. SelfPaint was developed by the Fraunhofer Institutes for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA and for Industrial Mathematics ITWM together with the Fraunhofer-Chalmers Research Centre for Industrial Mathematics FCC in Sweden. “Our SelfPaint technology enables the automated painting of small batches and even single pieces,” says Dr. Oliver Tiedje, IPA group manager and coordinator of the project. “Thanks to this new technology, we save up to 20 percent in paint. This in turn reduces solvent emissions by 20 percent. What’s more, the booths consume 15 percent less energy and complete the work 5 percent faster than conventional painting processes.” A further benefit is that the automated process also outperforms manual painting operations in terms of reproducibility.

Using simulations to produce perfect paintwork

Automated painting is a five-step process. First of all, the researchers use robust state-of-the art systems to produce a three-dimensional scan of the component. Data from this scan forms the basis for a fluid dynamic simulation: customized software simulates the trajectory of the paint particles and then determines the optimum volume of paint and air needed to achieve the required coating thickness. In the third step, the system uses the simulation data to plan the robot path for the painting process. The painting process itself is then carried out. In the fifth and final step, the quality of the paintwork is inspected to check that the required coating thickness been achieved. “For the quality control checks we apply terahertz technology, in other words a beam of light at a wavelength that lies between microwave and infrared. This enables us to measure wet, colored paint without actually touching it,” says Joachim Jonuscheit, deputy department head at Fraunhofer ITWM. The idea is for this whole process to be automated in everyday painting operations: robots will scan, paint and check the quality of the paintwork – all without human intervention.

While researchers from Fraunhofer IPA are coordinating the project and focusing on both the painting technology and the simulation of paint particles close to the atomizer, their colleagues in Sweden are simulating particle behavior close to the work piece and working on the automated path planning. More specifically, they are calculating how the droplets of paint move through the air, where they lay down on the target object and the thickness of the resulting layer of paint. At Fraunhofer ITWM, researchers are pursuing the 3D scanning technology and measurement of the coating thickness for quality control purposes. The individual modules are already complete. Now, the researchers are working to combine the individual steps to form one fully automated process. Expected to be completed in late 2018, the finished prototype is set to help increase the degree of automation and flexibility of painting technology in production.

Learn more: Automated painting of individual pieces


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Bending sheet glass into complex or unconventional shapes with the help of laser beams and gravity

Photo Fraunhofer IWM
Prototype sheet glass with very small radii, produced using the new laser-based glass forming technology.

A new Fraunhofer technique makes it possible to bend sheet glass into complex or unconventional shapes with the help of laser beams. This opens up a whole new range of potential products for architects and designers. The researchers are taking advantage of a particular attribute glass has of becoming viscous and therefore malleable when exposed to high temperatures. Precise calculations and gravity do the rest.

A laser beam moves across the surface of the glass with absolute precision, following a preprogrammed if still invisible path. Every now and then, the beam stops, changes position and moves on. The four-millimeter-thick sheet of glass is in an oven that has been preheated to just below the temperature at which glass begins to melt. The glass now starts to soften at the points the laser has heated and, thanks to gravity, the heated portions sink as if they were made of thick honey. Once the desired form has been achieved, the laser is switched off and the glass solidifies again. The result is a fascinating shape with bends featuring small radii, waves and round protrusions.

This is how lasers can be used to help bend sheet glass in a process developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials IWM in Freiburg im Breisgau. The whole process is based on a particular physical characteristic of the material; unlike metal, for instance, glass does not have a definitive melting point at which it liquefies. Instead, when exposed to a certain temperature range, it softens and becomes malleable.

Bending glass without a mold

Fraunhofer IWM’s laser-supported technique allows architects and also industrial designers to make use of shapes that were previously difficult and costly to produce. Here, sheet glass is shaped without the need for a bending mold to apply pressure. In this way, the new process doesn’t leave behind any unsightly marks – the flat glass surfaces remain visually undistorted.

Laser beams controlled by software

Giving a product the required shape starts with programming the process workflow. Geometrical data is used to define the sequence of precisely where, when and for how long the material will be heated, as well as to create the program that will control the laser beam. This factors in options to have the laser stop for a moment, heat a single point multiple times or change the intensity of the beam. “Thanks to our technique, manufacturers have a cost-effective way of producing extremely customized glass objects in small batches or even as one-offs,” says Tobias Rist, scientist at Fraunhofer IWM.

From placing the glass in the oven to cooling it off, the whole process takes approximately half an hour. Depending on the shape required, it takes only a few minutes for the laser to do its job. “A distinct benefit for manufacturers is that the machine is only occupied for short times. The workpiece is placed in the preheated oven and lasering can begin after just a few minutes,” Rist explains. Since the glass is removed for cooling, the bending oven is then free for the next workpiece and so doesn’t have to be cooled down. This offers significantly greater energy efficiency than conventional processes – the laser does require a lot of energy, but the very short processing times save electricity.

Adjustable mirrors direct the laser beam

Fraunhofer IWM’s Machining Processes, Glass Forming Group uses a powerful CO2 laser model. This type of laser is commonly used in materials processing in the industry. The laser beam is not applied to the workpiece directly, but rather directed via adjustable mirrors fitted to the interior of the oven. This provides an extremely fast and simple way of positioning the laser beam because it means the laser apparatus itself can remain static. The group’s researchers are currently able to process sheet glass with edges of up to 100 centimeters and alter the shape of both sides of the glass. The researchers’ next step is to experiment with different types of glass and explore further manufacturing variations with a view to expanding the range of shapes products can take.

Learn more: Bending sheet glass using lasers and gravity



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Infrared 3D scanner with a resolution of one million pixels and real-time data processing

With the new infrared 3D scanner, people can be measured without disturbing projections.

Infrared 3D scanners have been used in video games for quite some time. Whereas in video games the scanners are, for example, only able to identify if a player throws his arms up in the air while playing virtual volleyball, the new 3D scanner of the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering IOF is able to be much more precise. With a resolution of one million pixels and real-time data processing, numerous applications are possible with this new device.

The measuring technology works in a similar way to human vision.  However, instead of two eyes we are using two near-infrared cameras«, Stefan Heist from the Fraunhofer IOF explains. »In order to detect the object, we project a-periodic patterns onto the surface using a specially developed near-infrared projector.« A sequence of different patterns is projected in rapid succession in order to record as many measurement points as possible by the two cameras. Within a few milliseconds, the software then calculates the 3D data from the images.

Well balanced overall package

Since infrared rays are invisible to the human eye the scanner measures the surface invisibly and, due to the numerous measurements points, with high accuracy. This makes it possible to create high-resolution 3D images of 1,000 x 1,000 pixels at 36 3D images per second. Combined with the shots of a color camera, colored 3D images are produced in premium quality. The system is able to creates images continuously without a break. This creates the impression of a moving 3D color image to the viewer. In comparison, old tube televisions showed 25 images per second, each image being doubled in order to reduce the disturbing flicker.

Although there are scanners that are faster, they render 3D images with a poorer resolution. If, on the other hand, the scanners are more accurate, they tend to be much slower. Moreover, most scanners work in the visible range and the projections of the patterns may even interfere or have disturbing glare effects. Our measurement goes on completely unseen. The novelty of our development is the finely tuned overall package – and this is still one of the greatest challenges in development work«, says Dr. Peter Kühmstedt, who heads the research project.

Numerous applications possible

Numerous applications are imaginable for the new, irritation-free 3D scanner; for example, in medical rehabilitation. Here, our optical system could indicate whether the patient performs exercises correctly or incorrectly«, says Kühmstedt. He and his team are also working on applications in human-machine interaction. Robots or highly autonomous systems would be able to grasp and respond to human gestures and facial expressions. The new scanner could also be interesting for security technology applications. Biometric body characteristics can be identified without irritating projections.

A prototype of the new scanner has already been built and will be presented at the Stuttgart Control Trade Fair from May 9 to 12.

Learn more: Infrared 3D scanner: fast and accurate



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1000 kilometer range for electric vehicles?

Photo Fraunhofer IKTS

You cannot get far today with electric cars. One reason is that the batteries require a lot of space. Fraunhofer scientists are stacking large cells on top of one another. This provides vehicles with more power. Initial tests in the laboratory have been positive. In the medium term, the project partners are striving to achieve a range of 1000 kilometers for electric vehicles

Depending on the model, electric cars are equipped with hundreds to thousands of separate battery cells. Each one is surrounded by a housing, connected to the car via terminals and cables, and monitored by sensors. The housing and contacting take up more than 50 percent of the space. Therefore, the cells cannot be densely packed together as preferred. The complex design steals space. A further problem: Electrical resistances, which reduce the power, are generated at the connections of the small-scale cells.

More space for batteries

Under the brand name EMBATT, the Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies and Systems IKTS in Dresden and its partners have transferred the bipolar principle known from fuel cells to the lithium battery. In this approach, individual battery cells are not strung separately side-by-side in small sections; instead, they are stacked directly one above the other across a large area. The entire structure for the housing and the contacting is therefore eliminated. As a result, more batteries fit into the car. Through the direct connection of the cells in the stack, the current flows over the entire surface of the battery. The electrical resistance is thereby considerably reduced. The electrodes of the battery are designed to release and absorb energy very quickly. “With our new packaging concept, we hope to increase the range of electric cars in the medium term up to 1000 kilometers,” says Dr. Mareike Wolter, Project Manager at Fraunhofer IKTS. The approach is already working in the laboratory. The partners are ThyssenKrupp System Engineering and IAV Automotive Engineering.

Ceramic materials store energy

The most important component of the battery is the bipolar electrode – a metallic tape that is coated on both sides with ceramic storage materials. As a result, one side becomes the anode, the other the cathode. As the heart of the battery, it stores the energy. “We use our expertise in ceramic technologies to design the electrodes in such a way that they need as little space as possible, save a lot of energy, are easy to manufacture and have a long life,” says Wolter. Ceramic materials are used as powders. The scientists mix them with polymers and electrically conductive materials to form a suspension. “This formulation has to be specially developed – adapted for the front and back of the tape, respectively,” Wolter explains. The Fraunhofer IKTS applies the suspension to the tape in a roll-to-roll process. “One of the core competencies of our institute is to adapt ceramic materials from the laboratory to a pilot scale and to reproduce them reliably,” says Wolter, describing the expertise of the Dresden scientists. The next planned step is the development of larger battery cells and their installation in electric cars. The partners are aiming for initial tests in vehicles by 2020.

Learn more: 1000 km range thanks to a new battery concept



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