Marginal Column

Time to market: How software makes us faster

July 2014

 

Engineering, simulation and networking are powerful answers to the demand for shorter product life cycles and smaller batch sizes.

 
 

Shorter product life cycles and smaller batch sizes are exerting tremendous pressure on development and delivery periods. One example from the motor vehicles industry illustrates the changes in requirements. Through to the 1990s, permanently linked transfer lines let manufacturers produce large numbers of a single engine type in a short period of time.

This was the ideal production concept. Ever larger numbers of models and shorter product life cycles, however, called for greater flexibility. Today, many different engine models are produced on a single line. Highly flexible machining centers work together, within a production cell, on any given item.

But this evolutionary increase in flexibility for machine technology and manufacturing organization has largely played out. Innovative software concepts have now come to the fore, making it possible to produce single items both quickly and profitably.

No prototype, but no stress

Simulation tools come into the picture right at the beginning of a product’s life cycle. They shorten development times drastically and make it possible, right from the 3D design phase, to influence a product’s properties. System simulation can also be used to observe a machine’s dynamic behavior, in all its facets, since tangible machine tasks and drive processes are translated into mathematical contexts which can then be calculated.

This significantly reduces long trial periods on test beds; potential faults are detected early on and can be eliminated at reasonable expense. This is a highly relevant magnitude if one considers that the expenditures to eliminate faults – from initial product conception to market readiness – rises by a factor of ten with each successive phase.

Shortened test phases are, however, only one lever with which time and costs can be saved. Right at the very start of development work, simulation helps verify the general feasibility of the product without having to make up time-consuming and expensive prototypes.

When designing components, using these tools avoids over-dimensioning and leads to the solution most efficient in terms of materials and energy use. During commissioning, the software simulates the employment of the completed machine or components on site and makes possible fine-tuning without interfering with the flow of operations.

That is what makes simulation an efficient tool for cost reduction, quality assurance, and shorter times to market. Examples have shown that simulation tools can shorten development times from two years to as little as six months – a reduction of 75 percent.

Expertise and automation

To be able to achieve these successes at all, it is necessary to define clearly, right at the outset, what is actually to be developed. Without the expertise of the sales department – with its experience, contacts with the customers, and familiarity with the market – even the best technology will be of no avail.

Further improvements will be made largely through more intensive cooperation with the development partners. This is also true for the next step in this field – something like automating sales. This option is speculated upon by Prof. Alexander Verl, Executive Vice President for Technology Marketing and Business Models at the Fraunhofer Society, in an interview starting on page 12.

Software creates value

In the manufacturing process, efficiency can be boosted by consistently networking factory automation with the IT environment – the key word here is Connected Industry. This linkage of worlds – which had previously been separate – makes it possible for industrial users to combine the widest variety of machines one with another and, together with the company’s IT resources, to make it an autonomous system.

If demands change, then the system will carry out coordination work and adapt to the new situation. The factory’s own production processes are more flexible, faster and thus more economical. If the customer’s machines are also integrated into the network – using the cloud, for example – then delivery periods can also be reduced.

Fault detection alarms reach the service department immediately and production orders for the required spare parts can be forwarded directly to production. In each individual case it is necessary to determine whether the effort required for additional interfaces, cloud capacity and the intelligence installed in the system will actually pay off.

If users consider this idea in lean automation, then networked, modular production solutions will greatly change the operating environment. Even more so than at present, software will be the determinant factor in value creation, efficiency, and innovation for machinery concepts. This will turn the factory into a value creation network

Speaking all the programming languages

As great as the advantages of networking might be, the communications hurdles standing in the way of its implementation are even higher. The world of factory automation speaks the PLC dialect while the IT universe communicates in so-called high-level languages like C++, Java or PHP.

For a long time, direct networking was possible only by way of workarounds. Today, operators and machinery engineers should be able to program in the language they know best. “Anyone who offers open core control has many advantages, of course, since this addresses the next generation of programmers,” emphasizes Professor Verl. “In this way, one reaches more programmers, can write more elegant programs, and use more powerful tools very effectively. All this has a positive effect on the time to market.”