Manufacturing currently follows a series of fixed, separate stages. If machines or equipment suddenly fail, production stops. That costs time and money. Fraunhofer researchers now offer a better way with a digital twin.

Machines today produce parts in networked, pre-programmed production runs: pieces are turned, milled and measured in a set order. But what happens when a machine fails or a customer changes its order? Production has to be re-configured, which is time-consuming and expensive.

What if there was a better way? Instead of a central control program issuing commands, the workflow would develop flexibly, each part deciding for itself the best route through production. Sound like a pipe dream? To the contrary: Developers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology (IPT) in Aachen are working on such a system.

It is called “Service-Oriented Architecture for Adaptive and Networked Production” and functions similar to an automobile navigation system that uses current data to determine the best route in real time. Each part carries information regarding the next production stage; which machine will be called into operation is purposely left undecided. Only when a production stage is pending does the system select a machine from those that are readily available. Each part bears a QR-Code identifying it as a unique entity.

The software remembers what was done to each part at each production stage, for example, “Hole is drilled with machine parameter A and tool X”. A digital twin emerges from this history, displaying at any time where its physical counterpart is in the production process. Digital twins are especially valuable to manufacturers of a wide variety of goods because updating or changing a production run does not require a system overhaul.

Single parts thanks to flexible production, plug-and-produce for independence
The “Smart Manufacturing Network” manages the digital twin, always analyzing and reusing its process data to improve process robustness and product quality. “Networking machines with parts will enable companies to produce one-off products in the future – production runs of one,” says Michael Kulik, project leader at Fraunhofer working on the software development.


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