Flexible production system for a wide range of variants

KIT engineers and industrial partners work on the economical production of individualized industrial and consumer goods

Flexible production system: greater strength and accuracy, for example when assembling a bicycle frame. (Photo: wbk, KIT)

Flexible production system: greater strength and accuracy, for example when assembling a bicycle frame. (Photo: wbk, KIT)

From sports shoes to car equipment, customers want more and more individually designed products. Manufacturing industrial and consumer goods with a high degree of customization and quality requirements in correspondingly smaller quantities economically and competitively requires suitable manufacturing processes. Researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) are working with industrial partners to develop a new type of production planning system that combines the high productivity and accuracy of special machines with the flexibility and versatility of industrial robots and is very easy to operate.

Companies that respond to the increasing demand for a greater variety of their products have a competitive advantage, but their prices often have to measure up to those of competing products from highly efficient, automated and rigid production. You then have to choose between rigid production lines with high productivity or flexible production with low efficiency. The aim of the value stream kinematics research project is to break up this conflict of objectives and combine high flexibility with high productivity. This is a completely new production approach. “Suitable production systems, which are characterized by a high degree of flexibility and a high degree of automation, have not yet existed or have only rudimentarily existed. Our approach closes this gap ", says Edgar Mühlbeier from the wbk Institute for Production Technology at KIT. There, the machine manufacturer, with a focus on control technology, coordinates the development of this innovative production system. It combines the high productivity and precision of special machines with the flexibility of industrial robots.

“The value stream kinematics could revolutionize today's production landscape,” says Professor Jürgen Fleischer, head of the wbk and initiator of the new production approach. You can make large halls superfluous and prevent long supply chains or production downtimes due to delivery bottlenecks. The current crisis caused by the pandemic has shown how quickly the production lines can come to a standstill if supplies for production from abroad are not available on time. “If our flexible systems were in use, regional companies in the vicinity could step in and manufacture the missing parts. Reducing transport routes would also save the environment and conserve resources, ”emphasizes Fleischer.

The prototype in action. (Source: wbk, KIT) 

Construction enables frequent and flexible rearrangement

The system is made up of several uniform and freely configurable individual units (kinematics). They carry out the usual handling tasks in robotics and are also able to dock various production tools in order to carry out processes such as assembly, additive manufacturing, cutting and joining processes as well as machining tasks and quality assurance fully automatically and within a multi-layered production flow. "This structure enables the production system to be rearranged frequently and flexibly without having to buy expensive additional equipment," emphasizes Mühlbeier. In order to solve these demanding tasks, it is necessary to optimize the new system in various ways compared to conventional vertical articulated arm robots, especially with regard to their rigidity.

The flexible production system makes you independent of individual machines. For example, coupling and decoupling can be used to increase productivity as required. (Graphic: wbk, KIT) 

With the help of innovative gear technology and software support, the researchers want to achieve, for example, path guidance during milling that is accurate to a few hundredths of a millimeter. The individual work steps such as cutting speeds and the use of force must be planned very precisely. "The specialty of our production system is: The individual units can be coupled in order to cooperate and thus to replace today's special machines for certain tasks and processes", explains Mühlbeier. After the task has been completed, they can be decoupled again and used separately. In this way, companies could reduce the number of - often very expensive - production machines.

Quick setup, shorter planning and commissioning times

The quick, easy and exact positioning of the flexible value stream kinematics in the room enables a grid that extends over the entire production area, "comparable to a Lego board on which the building blocks can be stuck as desired," says Mühlbeier. The construction of the production system can thus be accelerated considerably. In order to significantly shorten the planning and commissioning time, an intuitive and easy-to-use engineering platform should also support the engineers in medium-sized companies in a web-based and therefore platform-independent manner: from designing a product in CAD to planning the number, arrangement and coupling of the kinematics up to the simulation and fine adjustment of the production system.

The quick, easy and exact positioning of the flexible value stream kinematics in the room enables a grid that extends over the entire production area, "comparable to a Lego board on which the building blocks can be stuck as desired," says Mühlbeier. The construction of the production system can thus be accelerated considerably. In order to significantly shorten the planning and commissioning time, an intuitive and easy-to-use engineering platform should also support the engineers in medium-sized companies in a web-based and therefore platform-independent manner: from designing a product in CAD to planning the number, arrangement and coupling of the kinematics up to the simulation and fine adjustment of the production system.

The KIT scientists are promoting their development together with the industrial partners Siemens in the field of control technology and the machine tool manufacturer GROB as a hardware developer and integrator. “Production technologies have to meet the changing conditions of the market and constantly increasing technological requirements. Our goal is to identify and develop innovative solutions for new processes and requirements, ”says Fleischer.


Further information: www.wertstromkinematik.de

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