Smart Factory, Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence – these are buzzwords that are widely used in our era of digitalization. For the apprentice Stefan Uhl, they are not only ambiguous terms but learning contents that form a substantial part of his apprenticeship. His school, the Technical School Aalen, sets a strong focus on applied learning and its Smart Factory 4.0 offers Uhl and his classmates an excellent space for versatile class hours.
Just a few clicks on the big touch screen and Stefan Uhl has the smart factory running. Approvingly his eyes shift to the assembly line which has started to move. A smile flickers across the face of the 18-year-old – he induced the smart factory to produce a housing for a cellphone board. It is one of the things Uhl learnt during his apprenticeship. The mechatronic technician-to-be is student at the Technical School Aalen and apprentice at ZEISS. During his apprenticeship, Uhl learnt about the ins and outs of modern production processes.
The principles of a smart factory
Stefan Uhl’s eyes wander around his school’s Smart Factory 4.0. What at first glance resembles a traditional manufacturing plant turns out to be a self-organizing production system. “The single modules of the smart factory are networked and communicate with each other”, Uhl knows. He holdsa tool tray that is numerated and has an implanted chip. Its carriage is furnished with a chip as well, so that the system knows what exactly each tool tray is transporting. The tool trays are stopping on each of the working stations to retrieve the task at hand from the system. That’s just one example on how the smart factory communicates.
Uhl points out the different steps of producing a housing of a cellphone board. From the installation, to drilling, pressing and labelling – the smart factory knows exactly what to do and is even recording each of these steps. Key for that is the software that has been programmed in a way that it can react to what has been communicated to it.
The perks of a smart factory
The question is now, what exactly makes a factory ‘smart’. Stefan Uhl gives us an example: A lot of data is collected on the server. Hence, we have the advantage to track and retrace all the steps of the manufacturing process. Having all data at your fingertips, just having to call it up from the server, is a major advantage. In a smart factory, if one of the product’s components turns out to be defect, looking at the collected data is enough to spot the faulty product. A traditional production plant cannot provide that knowledge as there is no evidence which exact component is used for what product.
Regarding the perks of a smart factory, the term ‘predictive maintenance’ comes up repeatedly. Uhl knows: “Say a bearing needs replacement, and we don’t find out straight away, we can end up with a lot of defect products. The maintenance is predictive if the system recognizes that the machine needs increased voltage and subsequently concludes that the bearing is defect. The smart factory replaces the bearing autonomously before a human would even recognize the defect. That’s what makes a factory truly smart.”
A cloud that connects school and business
After learning about the implementation of the smart factory at Stefan Uhl’s school in Aalen, the journey through the worlds of intelligent production processes continues in the nearby city Oberkochen. At ZEISS in Oberkochen, there is a smaller version of a smart factory which is connected with the one at the Technical School Aalen via cloud. This is ideal as it means that the two factories are perfectly complementing each other. During the time that the apprentices are not in school but in the businesses, Uhl had the chance to get to know the ZEISS Smart Factory. “The principles of the smart factory in school and at ZEISS are basically the same”, explains Uhl. “The one at ZEISS however is smaller and its purpose is less for demonstration and more for hands-on work.” The apprentice is visibly confident in the use of the ZEISS Smart Factory and spontaneously opens one of the module’s glass lids. “Something is jammed” he notes with a shrug and carefully adjusts the interferer. His trainee teacher Markus Lingel is noticeably proud, seeing his apprentice working independently and with gusto at the smart factory. “He knows his stuff”, Lingel nods approvingly.
What is it, that excites Uhl the most about the smart factory? “I can see behind the curtain of modern production processes. That’s not only very interesting but will also set me up for my future career. Smart factoring is not just the production of tomorrow but ZEISS Vision Care for instance, is already using basic approaches of the smart factory today.” To ensure the high standards of eyeglass products, Vision Care is using automated troubleshooting. Light and UV lenses automatically assess the quality of eyeglass lens coatings and report the results back to the system.
On that note, a fascinating trip through the world of smart production comes to an end. Clearly, the smart factory is a topic that will increasingly attract attention in the future and the way the Technical School Aalen and ZEISS are introducing Uhl and his fellow students to it, is truly smart.