3. March 2021

The personal conversation is unsurpassed

Motek Internationale Fachmesse für Produktions- und Montageautomatisierung csm Prof Joerg Franke 67d1a1b800 uai

Energy- and resource-optimized production is one of the research focuses at the Chair of Manufacturing Automation and Production Systems (FAPS) in Erlangen. The exclusive interview with the head Prof. Dr.-Ing. Jörg Franke sheds light on the importance of the close interlinking of industry and research for medium-sized companies, on teaching and research in times of Corona and on the importance of personal exchange at trade fairs.

How have processes and work at your Chair of Manufacturing Automation and Production Systems (FAPS) in Erlangen changed due to corona?

Due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the processes at the chair have changed – however, the core of our work in research and teaching is not affected by the external influences. Since we at FAPS have been equipping all employees with laptops for about ten years now and a flexible home office arrangement has also been used intensively for a long time, we have been able to continue the intellectual research work without delay. Of course, we continue the experimental work in our research laboratories – albeit with strict hygiene rules and contact restrictions – but very effectively. The most difficult is certainly maintaining creative informal collaboration, in the context of which the most promising ideas are often born. That’s why we continue all regular chair events unabated digitally. For example, all 120 faculty members meet via videoconference at the end of each month to share general updates in FAPS discourse and discuss new research content at the FAPS Colloquium. In my opinion, our accessibility to each other at the different locations of the chair has even been significantly improved thanks to the internet-based communication systems. Almost instantaneously, we have digitized our entire teaching in order to maintain teaching operations even in times of social distancing. Our digital content around manufacturing automation reaches about 1000 students. In the mainly live lectures, students can ask questions at any time via chat, which are answered immediately by supporting academic staff*. At the same time, we record all courses so that they can be listened to at any time and repeatedly.

Is the research work seriously inhibited – or does it even suffer a setback?

Due to the many possibilities offered by the digital transformation, as well as the immense time saved by no longer having to travel to work, travel to project meetings, travel to international congresses, and a significant increase in efficiency in our routine meetings, we are left with much more free space for productive content-related insight. So I generally consider our research to be forced rather than inhibited. It is possible, however, that our intensive cooperation with industry could suffer, as many companies understandably prioritize internal issues or may even run into economic difficulties. Thanks to a strong network of many long-standing partners with whom we maintain intensive cooperation, we are able to cope well with these challenges.

The global pandemic situation has given a boost to digitization in all areas or revealed its necessity. How do you currently assess the state of digitization in mechanical engineering?

Industry 4.0 is not only a highly successful global campaign for digitization in mechanical and plant engineering, but also impressively demonstrates the interpretive authority of German companies in the digitization of production. Through Corona, the know-how built up over the last few years, the expanded product functions and the new service offerings find beneficial applications in the areas of product engineering, automation, process optimization and maintenance, among others. At the same time, completely new digital business models are creating an incredible number of opportunities. I am particularly impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit of my scientific staff and students, who are making virtuoso use of the methods and tools of artificial intelligence and machine learning to transfer these promising technologies into the established world of manufacturing companies. In the close networking of successful global market leaders and hidden champions with young creative start-ups and leading production research, we are certainly represented in the top group internationally.

Modern, contemporary demands on production equipment include speed, efficiency and cost optimization. What specifically does the medium-sized mechanical engineering company need in order to keep pace with current requirements?

In my view, the willingness and courage to embrace change must become even more firmly established in corporate cultures. Technical perfection, unconditional customer orientation and the highest ethical standards are our great strengths in international competition. Perhaps in the future we could bring our innovative strength to the market even more quickly and adhere less strongly to behavioral patterns that are certainly successful but sometimes outdated. In particular, the close integration of industry and world-leading research in the fields of automation, production and materials is a significant competitive advantage that medium-sized companies could also make greater use of. Often, the gap between industrial practice and application-oriented research is particularly large in the areas of digitization, networked production, and artificial intelligence applications. The powerful public programs for research funding and the new possibilities for improved tax consideration of development expenditures, in conjunction with the efficient, excellently equipped university institutes that are willing to cooperate, can form an excellent basis for setting the pace in this dynamic technological environment.

One of your research projects is dedicated to the energetic optimization of automated production systems in order to reduce energy demand and CO2 emissions. What insights have you already gained?

Energy- and resource-optimized production is one of the main research areas at the Chair of Manufacturing Automation and Production Systems (FAPS), on which we are continuously working on a large number of innovative projects. For example, we were able to very successfully complete the Green Factories Bavaria joint program, in which we were able to tap immense potential for climate-neutral production together with twelve universities, around 100 companies and in 50 research projects. In our current project, which is in a funded concept phase, to convert the electrical energy supply in production to direct current, the project objectives include the use of SiC-based power electronics, which are also currently making strong inroads in the automotive industry, comprehensive sensor-based measurement, control and storage of energy flows, and the integration of regenerative energies. Significant energy savings can be achieved with this concept. In drive systems in particular, SiC components enable significantly lower switching losses at faster switching frequencies as well as higher operating temperatures and voltages compared to conventional Si technology. DC grids also reduce energy demand by reducing energy conversion processes and simplifying cable systems. The use of machine-learning algorithms in edge-cloud energy management systems enables optimal demand-based adjustment of process parameters. The largest optimization approach, which is at the same time difficult to quantify in general terms, is expected to come from a fine-granular sensor network and from intelligent and learning controllers. This makes it possible to uncover energy waste on an ad-hoc basis, significantly optimize manufacturing and logistics processes, and synchronize them in terms of energy. This enables recuperation as well as optimized energy efficiency through adaptive production systems. Ultimately, the consistent integration of regenerative energy sources and suitable energy storage solutions can make production completely CO2-neutral.

In another research project, your chair is looking into the use of autonomous flying robots for the internal, fully autonomous transport of goods at picking stations. Is this the future in production halls as well?

The use of autonomous flying robots enables the overhead-free, fast and highly flexible transport of urgently needed spare parts, tools and production materials. The cyclic transport of small parts by means of flying robots also offers industrial application possibilities. The use of autonomous flying robots will therefore also become established in production and logistics halls of the future. Among other things, flying robots perform fully automated inventory processes as well as automated inspection, monitoring and surveying tasks. In the area of internal goods transport, we also see a significant increase in flexibility in the future with the use of different, autonomous floor-based transport systems.

Our industry urgently awaits the return of face-to-face, professional exchanges – especially at Motek 2021. How important do you consider the presence fairs?

I attach great importance to attendance at trade fairs and to personal, professional exchange in general. While trade shows already held digitally demonstrate the basic feasibility in this format – face-to-face is unsurpassed. So I hope we will have more opportunities to meet in person again more often this year.