Next level: The digitization of production processes at thyssenkrupp Steering
In an increasingly digitized world, customer requirements are steadily becoming more demanding – to be precise: extremely challenging – in the automotive industry as well.
Roland Kerbleder is convinced that, "without digitized production systems, automatic data collection or the analysis of data in the cloud, we would be unable to meet our customers' growing demands." And that is something the industrial engineer is well positioned to know: as Head of Operations Excellence at thyssenkrupp Steering, he has been responsible for overseeing the advancement of digitalization in production with the aid of a high-performance Manufacturing Execution System (MES) and cloud services since 2013. With their policy of consistent digitalization, the steering specialists already set the course for the future early on.
"Over eight years ago, our COO, Patrick Vith, laid the cornerstone for digitization at thyssenkrupp Steering," reveals Roland Kerbleder. This shows that already early on, the digitization of production was a key element of the operations strategy pursued by the steering experts headquartered in Eschen, Liechtenstein. In years of detailed work, the team responsible for the project, together with external service providers, logged use cases, drew up requirement specifications and documentation, defined processes and workflows and developed algorithms and software programs. The result was the "Digital Factory" concept in thyssenkrupp's steering business.
Continuous data collection
The prerequisite and core component of the digitized production processes lies in the continuous collection and analysis of the key data. Each segment of these data is labeled with a data matrix code to make it unambiguously identifiable. The label accompanies the product throughout its journey from production to the customer. All production data are transferred via the label – either fully automatically straight from the production facilities or manually. Information on, for example, production stages or additional assembled components as well as specific measurement data are automatically forwarded to the Manufacturing Execution System (MES) – a production management system that continuously collects information and controls and monitors the production processes in real time.
"It goes without saying that we had always logged production data in pre-MES times as well," says Roland Kerbleder. "In those days, however, that took place more on isolated platforms, for individual machine types or even via Excel, Access and paper." With the help of the MES, the data collected on each product is promptly sent to a cloud and stored there so that it can be accessed at any time – from anywhere in the world and on a cross-plant basis. Another new feature is that online data can be linked with offline data. "This enables us complete traceability of the products," explains the industrial engineer.
The MES solution is currently in global rollout, and five plants with almost 400 machines are already linked up with the system. The rollout is progressing at full stretch. The declared objective: that all plants are working with the system as soon as possible and get to benefit from the enhanced traceability afforded by the MES. A direct interface to the cloud was set up for data already logged on the machines before the MES rollout, enabling the analysis of traceability and process data for plants not yet linked up to the MES.
Exceptionally high information density
A wide variety of production data can thus not only be monitored directly on the shop floor but are also available for higher-level areas such as maintenance or supply chain management for analyses and optimizations of the processes, as Roland Kerbleder emphasizes. "Besides quality analysis, process assurance and process optimization are just as important to us as an enhanced degree of automation and the optimization of our machine performance." The machine and process data are known to be the gold of the 21st century, since they enable process specialists to cut downtimes or optimize output.
The density and depth of the collected data are enormous – and meaningful data are something no department can get enough of. Roland Kerbleder: "No doubt about it: the more metadata and context information we have, the greater the informative value of the data."
Speed and precision
The specialists at thyssenkrupp Steering are particularly proud of the speed and precision at which they can now act and react. "We can react extremely quickly to looming errors because we can access and analyze the production data in real time," reports Roland Kerbleder. "And even if there are any differences between target and actual results in production, we can promptly and precisely identify which parts are involved. And any quality problem arising that we were unable to identify during production can be traced back exactly so that the impact is kept to a minimum".
As progressive as the possibilities available to the steering specialists may appear, Roland Kerbleder sees them as no more than an intermediate step: "Our customers are extremely demanding, and quite rightly so. What we can do today will already be a must-have tomorrow, a basic requirement."
Next level: Artificial intelligence
That is why they are already thinking a step further. Keyword: Artificial intelligence (AI). "With AI models, we can prospectively train algorithms as well that analyze the data from the cloud in real time, classify parts or products and identify error patterns or deviations from target quality." Roland Kerbleder gives a specific example: "The system could, for example, compare the data on each individual part with the parts last produced and check whether there are any anomalies in the quality and process data. Such anomalies could then be flagged and reported to the relevant specialists for analysis. In this way we can achieve an additional safety level."
Roland Kerbleder puts a damper on expectations and, for all his enthusiasm, emphasizes that this is still very much a thing of the future. But this future is in fact not that far away. At least not at thyssenkrupp. Because the specialists at Steering have long been working flat out on corresponding pilot projects. And with a meaningful smile, Roland Kerbleder adds: "We can be sure of finding some awesome things to do where that's concerned..."