ST 003-11 Lohr, 2011-04-20

Revolution in the Factory: Enough is Enough

How often do users really exploit the full potential of modern technology? In reality they frequently buy many features, of which they only use a fraction. In industry, a new approach is becoming increasingly widespread, particularly in emerging markets: "just enough", which means providing just enough performance for the actual task in hand. Even German suppliers, often derided for over engineering, are gearing themselves up for this approach.

In design departments they are necessary: extremely powerful and also expensive workstations, to design components and test them in simulation programs. But a commercial administrator, who only writes letters and uses spreadsheets, can make do with a much simpler and cheaper computer and still has enough performance at their disposal. What is critical is that both versions are integrated in the company network and provide enough performance for the task in question.

In the different factory automation markets, a very similar development can be seen heading in two directions: whilst the automotive industry, for example, continues to rely on top performance when it comes to machines for producing core products like engines, tens of thousands of small and medium suppliers have emerged in emerging markets like China, India and Brazil in recent years. High-end solutions completely ignore their needs: too expensive, too complicated and technically speaking also not at all necessary.

These suppliers take on relatively simple processes like drilling or milling, always on the same components in large quantities. Based on CAD data from the customer, they have to work within narrow tolerances. As a result, the compact processing machinery segment, for example, is booming in China, the world's biggest machine tool market. Existing control solutions however, which are at the heart of these machines, are either too expensive and complex or not precise enough. German automation manufacturers like Bosch Rexroth are breaking into this gap. “On the one hand, the solution must not have any superfluous performance reserves, in order to be able to keep step commercially, on the other hand, users are still expecting accuracy to thousandths of a millimeter,” says Dr. Karl Tragl, Chairman of the Executive Board of Bosch Rexroth AG, outlining the challenge.

For this purpose, the company's German and Chinese developers jointly trimmed an established high-end solution. They removed everything over and above clearly defined machining tasks and were thus able to keep the system costs down considerably. At the same time, however, the software core from the original version was preserved with the programming language and all the data transfer options. The concept immediately won over the largest Chinese machine tool manufacturer, which has already used it to equip three series of machines and is delivering several thousand specimens a year.

The trend towards just-enough concepts has long since found favor with German production planners too. In highly automated production lines, they have so far been using handling systems, elaborately designed down to the last detail, that pass the components on from one station to the next. Here too, German automation manufacturers are now offering much more cost-effective solutions. They have developed modules that cover 90% of tasks by combining standard components. This is cheaper and shortens the whole planning and installation stage of assembly and handling systems. For the 10% of special applications, the companies continue to rely on customized high-end solutions.

The fact that the trend is not slowing down has been demonstrated by the computer industry for some time now. Previously better known for ever more powerful models, it has long since been bringing new product categories with different focal points onto the market. Net books and tablet PCs optimized for Internet applications are gaining market share at the expense of much more powerful PCs and notebooks. In electronics markets, consumers have already opted for application-oriented technology in their millions: enough is enough — even in the factory automation of the future.

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Susanne Herzlieb
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