Industrie 4.0 is one of Germany’s most innovative initiatives – even though we are far from having reached the full potential of Industrie 4.0 yet. To continue to use the opportunities for enterprises, we need the unbiased cooperation between production and IT experts for the benefit of our industrial basis in Europe. The large proportion of manufacturing industry, above all, has been a major factor helping Germany master the crises of the past relatively well. In order to remain successful, however, we have to play an active part in shaping the digital transformation, which means to act rather than to react.

To us at Fraunhofer, this means to regard the digitalization of products, production processes and their equipment as well as the associated IT systems and infrastructures as integral parts. Each organization urgently needs its own roadmap to find its individual way to digitalizing its products and processes. To this end, we provide the opportunity of a long-term and targeted cooperation of industrial partners with the Karlsruhe Smart Factory, an Initiative of Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). Covering a production area of 5,000 m² including a state-of-the-art IT infrastructure, we design production processes that are not completely understood yet while still delivering high-quality products to the market. In view of the challenges we face today such as market fluctuations or an ever-increasing number of product variants, today’s engineers cannot specify production processes in each and every detail any more. In the past, they used to plan production processes and derive production lines from those plans; then they planned them in detail, configured and assembled them and took them into operation. Today, most of these steps are carried out simultaneously. In cooperation with industrial partners, the Karlsruhe Smart Factory gets processes running that have not been specified completely yet, while we still produce high-quality products to get a new product to the market very quickly using a new process. To this end, we need massive (over-) instrumentation of the processes using sensor technology, data-driven machine learning, the use of existing knowledge from process development and control technology to adapt process parameters in line based on up-to-date quality data, for instance.

The Karlsruhe Smart Factory provides an environment to industrial enterprises where their staff can cooperate with scientists and possibly other partners to be creative without the constraints of their day-to-day business. In this way, they can actually design and develop new things, creating and optimizing a prototype – and even producing the first pre-serial parts at the testing areas of our shop floor. Specifically, this means that a new process is developed for a new product or two alternative processes are compared with each other; a manufacturing process may be elevated to the next level of robust and economic (small-scale) series production or an existing series process may be improved by means of machine learning.

Preferably, this takes place in »Corporate Innovation Labs« at our Karlsruhe Research Factory, where companies can send their team members for a defined period of time. They are then called »Embedded scientists«, joining a team of Fraunhofer and/or KIT experts to work on a project defined by their companies to develop innovative products, data-based services or new production processes. A steering group monitors the results at regular intervals, adding adapted or new tasks to the innovation process as necessary. The embedded scientists are given the opportunity to complete their PhD and return to their organizations afterwards, where they act as multipliers for new technologies and models of cooperation.

Author: Dr. Olaf Sauer, Fraunhofer IOSB