Smart hands, minds, and eyes for the industry of the future
As part of the SLIM2 project, the Twente-based companies IMS, VIRO, and Focal are developing new means of production for the ‘smart industry’. Nowadays, companies need to respond flexibly to the rapidly changing demand for new products. To do so, they need flexible machines with which to assemble the products (‘hands’), software with which to control the entire production process (‘minds’), and vision systems with which to monitor quality (‘eyes’). The objective of the SLIM2 project is to create a new flexible production platform (IMS) with innovative systems for complete process control (VIRO) and an automated visual quality control system (Focal). This will ensure that these three Twente-based companies will be even better prepared for the industry of the future.
The era of traditional mass production is now behind us as customer demand changes ever more rapidly and becomes increasingly individualistic. Just think of all the different variations in cars that are built nowadays or the ever-increasing speed with which smartphone models follow in succession. The trend has been to keep making new products, smaller series of products, or even customized products on just one production line. Companies want to react quickly to customer demand, limit their investments in new lines, and keep production costs per product unit low.
All of this requires flexible production methods: machines that are suitable for making different products and which can quickly switch to making a new product. They should also be able to operate smoothly in production lines with other machines in varying configurations. The control of the entire system is considerably more complex than for conventional mass production. Lastly, the vision quality control system (cameras and other optical devices) must be capable of monitoring constantly changing products that need to be inspected under various conditions. This new form of manufacturing is in line with the return to Europe of production that was outsourced to Asia.
Boost for high-tech manufacturing industry
Many companies in the Netherlands are already engaged in ‘smart industry’ and IMS (Integrated Mechanization Solutions B.V.), a developer and builder of automatic production systems in Almelo, took the initiative last autumn to move on to the next smart step. It started a collaboration with VIRO from Hengelo, Focal Vision & Optics from Enschede, and the University of Twente in a Twente-based ‘smart industry’ project which was given the name SLIM2. Together, these organizations are developing a new flexible production platform with innovative systems for complete process control and quality inspection. The ultimate goal is to create a new generation of production resources for a ‘Smart Manufacturing Platform’.
The purpose of this Twente-based project is to give a fresh impetus to the competitiveness of our high-tech industry. This ambition can count on the support of the government authorities that are investing collectively in smart and sustainable innovations in the East Netherlands. At the beginning of this year, more than ten million euros were made available by the EU, the Dutch government, and the provinces of Overijssel and Gelderland from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) for thirteen innovation projects, including SLIM2.
Enhanced competitive position
The SLIM2 innovation project will run until the end of 2017 and must provide the project partners with the means to provide their customers with a better service: a generic, broadly-applicable architecture and a modular toolkit with flexible machine parts, software blocks, or vision components.
This will enable them to help customers improve their position in the market whilst also strengthening their own competitive position at the same time.
Since its establishment more than fifteen years ago, IMS has built production lines for a wide range of products. The company is now using this experience in the SLIM2 project to build a new architecture for a flexible production platform. This platform will form the basis on which IMS can quickly develop customer-specific production machines. Ton Pothoven, Managing Director of IMS, explains, ‘There is a demand for flexible, scalable production platforms; especially from companies wanting to keep production in Europe close to their innovation centres. These companies want to avoid the risk of investing a large sum of money in a dedicated machine for the production of a product whose life cycle is still hard to predict. This is why we are now developing a platform that is flexible and reconfigurable, just like existing machines, but which is also more scalable and programmable. The investment will therefore grow along with the level of automation.’
VIRO receives many requests from customers about flexible production based on ‘smart industry’ developments. In order to respond more quickly to all these different requests, VIRO wants to have a generic architecture for the control of flexible production lines. Jacob Vlasma, Branch Manager of VIRO’s Hengelo site says, ‘The basis configuration of the system architecture makes it possible to make adjustments for specific automation solutions with relatively little effort. We will implement these adjustments to carry out projects for customers cost-effectively, with short lead times, and with guaranteed quality. The toolkit we are developing enables us to create ‘smart industry’ applications with 10-30% less effort than without the toolkit. We see this as a way to strengthen the competitive position of the chain, with the machine builder as customer and with us as service provider.’
Focal Vision & Optics will design a ‘smart vision’ concept comprising a vision architecture and basic elements for a toolkit. Gerard van den Eijkel, Director of Focal, explains, ‘Our starting point is to create configurable modules based on specific software. This will enable us to create new ‘smart industry’ vision applications that are faster, better, and cheaper. We expect this to reduce our development time for customer-specific applications by half.’
IMS in Almelo, part of the WWINN Group with 90 employees, develops and builds production systems for the semi-automated and highly automated production of, mostly small, composite products. These include components for consumer electronics, such as smartphones and medical devices. IMS supplies these production systems to customers throughout the world.
VIRO is an international engineering company specializing in engineering and project management which employees 600 people and has its head office based in Hengelo (Ov). VIRO helps customers across the entire chain improve their performance in mechanical engineering, product engineering, and industrial projects, from idea and engineering to production and commissioning. This family business owned by Johan Visser participates in global projects and has branches in the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria. Last year, VIRO was expanded to include a Software & Control department that develops advanced software, systems engineering, and smart concepts for system architecture.
Focal Vision & Optics in Enschede, with 23 employees, develops and implements inline precision inspections and optical measurement systems, focusing on the areas of industrial precision inspections, medical optical systems, and high-tech optical systems.
Focal specializes in Vision and Optics, in which both turnkey and consultancy projects are carried out. Industrial vision solutions make it possible to conduct a complete quality measurement of almost any product made from metal, fabric, glass, plastic, or rubber, as well as organic materials in a production or control process. Taking product characteristics and quality criteria as a starting point, the experts design an automatic inspection system based on machine vision technology.
The CTIT (information and communication technology) research institute of the University of Twente (UT) is involved in the SLIM2 project as a knowledge partner. CTIT is helping to develop the system architecture and control software.
The three industrial project partners have known each other for quite a while and each maintain their own individual ties with the UT. VIRO carries out a lot of mechanical engineering work for IMS and Focal has supported IMS in the past with vision solutions for an assembly line. The SLIM2 project enables the partners to intensify their level of collaboration.