Factories of the future

The inevitable challenge: Digital transformation of production machinery in line with lloT, Smart Industry and Industry 4.0 initiatives

During recent years, while facing ever-growing de­mands for greater efficiency, faster manufacturing, further cost reduction and resource conservation, the industry has witnessed a paradigm shift concerning the future development of industrial engineering. Digitalization and digital transformation are the buzzwords, along with lloT, Industry 4.0 and others, that fuel the underlying discussions and activities both in academic and commercial spheres. More precisely, a change for the better should come as a result of smart project management and transformation of the production process towards automation and interop­erability of production means, as well as the ability to implement predictive maintenance. There is a long way ahead but the foundations have already been laid - MicroStep has been building its systems with these basic ideas in mind for at least a decade.

Over the past years, the company's in-house developed solutions for machine-to-machine and machine-to-en­terprise communications have been winning increasing interest and gaining adoption in enterprises throughout Europe, Asia, America and Australia. Integration of our equipment with existing production workflow and ERP systems allows our customers to interconnect MicroStep cutting machines with their existing machinery by both hardware and software interfaces and to exchange data. We have implemented a number of automation solutions and machine-to-machine interfaces, especially in large-scale productions, integrating several cutting machines along with automated material handling sys­tems. Further such projects, and more complex ones, are scheduled for delivery in the near future. 

Flexibility is another trend shaping most industries. It is a result of increasing demands for a wide range of more customized product variants. "Lot size 1" is the ultimate goal. To be able to realize diverse projects in production efficiently, it is advisable for a manufactur­er to have a set of versatile means of production that ensure smooth production transition between different projects. Additionally, a high degree of automation, a good selection of technologies and the capability to process various sizes of workpieces are required. In line with the abovementioned trends, MicroStep's cutting machines are designed to be actively integrated into centrally managed production systems by automating the material flow (e.g. via feeding/lifting equipment and conveyors) and by software that enables the machines to communicate with different applications of the production management system, such as stock-, order­and part databases as well as with external ERP systems. The goal is for the machine to be able to quickly adapt to different cutting/processing requirements, increase work efficiency, optimize the production process and minimize costs and risks - the whole production should be fast, smooth and transparent, monitored (at first) from the corporate network. 

An example of such project is a modular combination of cutting/marking machines and an automatic pallet exchange system with a storage tower, which is successfully running at one of MicroStep's Dutch customers - the maritime service provider Neptune Shipyards. The system significantly reduces manipulation time and allows for expansion with other cutting machines and storage towers in the future. The automation is in loading of particular pallets with pre-loaded plates into two cutting machines automatically and unloading of the pallets back to the storage tower after the cutting/marking processes are finished. The prerequisite for such automated material handling is the ability of the machine to automatically measure the location and rotation of the plate on the table by a plate edge detection sen­sor. Integration of a CAPP software is also recommended as it allows to automatical­ly load cutting plans generated for thecurrently loaded mate­rial and to initiate the cutting process auto­matically, if required. MicroStep supplies its own production man­agement software un­der the name Machine Production Manage­ment. Thanks to the automation, technologies that do not require the over­ sight of an operator(e.g. inkjet marking) may run completely without supervision - all the plates that are loaded in the storage tower can be marked automatically during the night. In case of a forced interruption of the process, the machine will notify the operator via an e-mail or text message.

Another example of such a complex solution is a fully automatic cutting/marking line consisting of eight cutting machines, an automatic crane, a loading wagon and two output conveyors, that is fully managed by MPM software and capable of processing 500 tons of steel per day. 

It is understood that digitalization of production means is a matter of broad consensus on standards within the industry and beyond. At this stage, MicroStep has had several years of experience in interfacing to third-party machinery such as automatic cranes, storage towers, loading and conveyor systems as well as controlling these processes and exchanging data with different devices, ERP systems and cloud solutions. Our machines are ready to provide detailed data to the upper control level. We are closely watching the developments in the field and also actively participating in several related initiatives, with the aim not only to be prepared for the upcoming challenges but also to help shape the indus­try of the future. 

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