Germany has a long tradition of world-renowned engineering. One of Germany’s most important hothouses for engineering talent in all disciplines is RWTH Aachen University. There, the Cluster of Excellence “Internet of Production” (IoP) was recently launched – one of the country’s largest engineering research projects. The cluster is part of the Excellence Strategy of the Federal Government and Länder.
The networked factory of the future
Over the next six years, 200 engineers and computer scientists will be working together to fundamentally transform the way industrial production takes place: the idea is for it to be driven by data. To this end, the researchers will design and trial a digital infrastructure. In this factory of the future, all departments will be able to keep track of what is happening throughout the facility and throughout the entire production process: from initial idea and design of machines to production and quality control.
Interlinking highly-specialised areas
“To put it simply, computer scientist meets engineer”, is how managing director Matthias Brockmann sums up the research project. By this he means the obvious fact that computer scientists and engineers have to communicate and agree on how to create a digital platform that will incorporate data from every conceivable area of industrial production. However, Brockmann also points out that the current project has a backstory: “The old story was materials engineer meets production engineer”, says Brockmann. “At the Cluster of Excellence Integrative Production Technology for High-Wage Countries, we have been working over the past twelve years to establish a common basis for understanding between the various engineering disciplines.” He explains that this was the prerequisite for the next step now, which involves developing a concept that will use the internet to interlink the highly-specialised areas of the production process.
Better models thanks to real-time data
A “digital shadow” is at the heart of the software infrastructure. “This is a simulation that we feed with live data from the production process”, explains Brockmann. It is based on the mathematical models developed in the individual engineering disciplines, such as the models designed by production engineers to simulate the behaviour of various materials during deformation processes. Another example are models created by materials engineers that predict the flow behaviour of different materials. “The models we use are reduced in terms of their complexity so that they can be fed with real-time data. Though this is still a simulation, the models are based on reality and are therefore validated constantly”, says Brockmann.
Tailored access to data
In the networked factory of the future, every department will have access to these data. And so that each department knows what to do with the data, the user interfaces adapt automatically to the respective user needs. “Production workers do not need the same information as staff in quality control”, the engineer explains.
From prototype to reality test
One of the first steps towards data integration is to create four or five “data lakes”. This involves the scientists linking the models from the various engineering disciplines to meta data that show for example when and where the data were collected. The first prototypes are to be trialled this year. The next step is to interlink these various data lakes. A reality test will be conducted at the end of the seven-year project, putting the software infrastructure to the test in the production of electric vehicles – at the university’s own test factory.
Energy efficiency rather than over-engineering
When it comes to creating networked and transparent production, it is not only a question of improving individual machines or production steps. It is about transforming the entire production process: “If we better understand the cycle as a whole by bridging the gaps between the individual disciplines, it is more likely that we will really be able to achieve goals such as energy efficiency in vehicles”, says Matthias Brockmann. As such, the “Internet of Production” is bringing about something of a paradigm change in German engineering science.