Space for innovations: Center of Competencies develops future-oriented industry 4.0 applications

Automotive-sector | Digitalisation and industry 4.0 | innovation | Theories are fine, but only practical application shows whether new concepts and ideas, e.g. in the areas of human-robot collaboration, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) or 3D printing of spare parts, are efficient and work smoothly in daily use. And this is precisely why the team at thyssenkrupp Automotive Systems’ Center of Competencies (CoC) in France is made up of practitioners.

They have gathered their extensive know-how directly in situ, are familiar with the daily challenges on the shop floor from their own experience and know how work processes can be optimized. That’s why the CoC doesn’t spend too much time on theories but puts new ideas into practice as quickly as possible, trying them out in test environments that correspond to working conditions in the plants.

In early 2020, the CoC moved from Hambach in France to nearby Forbach. There, right on the border to Germany, the team now has ideal conditions to make work processes in thyssenkrupp’s axle assembly plants even more efficient and safe with innovative concepts such as collaborative robots and 3D printing. “Initially, the CoC was located directly on the Hambach production site and didn’t have any space of its own,” explains project manager Elsa Schneider. “But that was only a temporary solution. Here in Forbach, we have around 500 square meters available to us, divided into offices, conference rooms and above all our test areas for robotics and AGV applications. A prototype assembly line has also now been installed, which we can use for our work”.

Industry 4.0

The official opening of the Center of Competencies took place at the beginning of March 2020, but the team had already been working on various projects before that, such as a collaborative robot cell for an application at the Leipzig plant. The task and aim of the CoC as part of the thyssenkrupp Automotive Systems group is to develop innovative future solutions, new production concepts and new applications in the area of “Industry 4.0”. Various axle assembly plants of thyssenkrupp are currently customers of the CoC. Projects include the integration of collaborative robot cells in the axle assembly lines at the Leipzig plant and the Hungarian plant in Györ. In addition, the center is using its 3D printer to develop spare parts for the assembly line at the Hambach plant. The team is also testing the use of automated guided vehicles and the setup of the prototype assembly line. But that’s not all: In the future, the range of tasks is to be widened further. Elsa Schneider and her colleagues are currently examining the possibilities of developing and implementing innovative solutions for other thyssenkrupp business units – and possibly even for companies that are not part of the group.

Extensive test equipment

The CoC has various robots at its disposal to support production and numerous facilities to carry out project-related tests. The equipment includes a range of collaborative robots that – unlike conventional robots – work hand in hand with humans rather than behind safety guards, as well as a mobile robot and a 3D printer. Recently, an additional composite 3D printer was purchased to allow the production of thicker parts. To test current production processes, the team has access to extensive standard tools and test equipment, such as optical sensors and fastening technology. In October a system for assembling prototypes was installed which can be used for training and larger-scale trials in digitization projects.

Creative, efficient and pragmatic

The team at the CoC may be small but it’s highly efficient. Alongside project manager Elsa Schneider, the team is made up of Patrick Sultana and Gilles Gaeng. Where necessary they are joined by specialists from thyssenkrupp and students from universities to help on specific projects. One thing all the team members have in common is a passion for creative solutions and years of practical experience gained directly on the shop floor at thyssenkrupp’s production sites. “Our aim is to develop intelligent, simple and pragmatic solutions that can be used efficiently by our people in production,” is how Elsa Schneider describes the CoC’s philosophy. “But we never lose sight of the fact that regular maintenance must also be kept as simple as possible.”

Coronavirus restrictions as motivation

As almost everywhere, the coronavirus pandemic has also had an impact on the work of the CoC. In addition to the delay caused to the move to Forbach, installation work on various production facilities had to be postponed. Most other work was initially carried out by the team members working from home. It was precisely these coronavirus-related restrictions that highlighted the need for remote maintenance solutions. These enable thyssenkrupp experts to carry out equipment servicing and training online, using smart glasses to add information to their field of vision. Corresponding concepts and ideas are therefore currently on CoC’s to-do list.

Looking to the future: Artificial Intelligence

When asked about the technical innovation she finds most fascinating and believes will influence the work of the CoC in the future, project manager Elsa Schneider answers without hesitation. “For me, artificial intelligence is currently the most fascinating innovation: It has enormous potential and opens up a wealth of new possibilities. But in terms of understanding and implementation, AI is very complicated and poses many challenges,” she says. “I think we’re only just beginning to imagine all its uses and implications at our production sites and companies. We’re not currently working on AI projects, but I’m convinced we’ll be starting soon.”

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