Lighthouse project "Go Beyond 4.0"

Industrie 4.0 and then some

While many companies are busy putting Industrie 4.0 concepts into practice in their factories, new challenges are already knocking at the door. For example, demand for customized products is on the rise. Fraunhofer researchers have set out to develop technologies to meet these emerging requirements and take Industrie 4.0 to the next level in a lighthouse project called Go Beyond 4.0.

One of the main goals of the Go Beyond 4.0 lighthouse project is to transfer digital manufacturing processes from the lab to robot-assisted production lines.
© Fraunhofer IWU / Steve Leisner
One of the main goals of the Go Beyond 4.0 lighthouse project is to transfer digital manufacturing processes from the lab to robot-assisted production lines.

The basics of customized mass production are easily explained with a visit to the pizzeria around the corner. It is nothing unusual for a diner to order a Pizza Napoli base and then pile on the special requests – hold the olives, add some mushrooms, how about some extra capers. Ten minutes later, a steaming hot pizza pie replete with the diner’s favorite toppings arrives on a plate.

What has long been the norm in catering – a standard product tailored to the buyer’s taste – is now sweeping the manufacturing industry. The challenge for manufacturers is to find a way of customizing on the fly in highly flexible, connected Industrie 4.0 factories. This is akin to asking for bespoke products off the rack, delivered with assembly-line speed and reliability.

Digital printing and laser sintering for Industrie 4.0 plants

The Go Beyond 4.0 initiative aims to make that happen with two technologies not normally associated with industrial-scale manufacturing – the first using digital inkjet, dispensing and aerosol jet printing techniques, and the second by means of laser sintering. Fraunhofer researchers want to harness the powers of these technologies to add functions to any component during production. This initiative was sparked by an idea that Prof. Reinhard Baumann and Dr. Ralf Zichner had at the Fraunhofer Institute for Electronic Nano Systems ENAS in 2014. Now they are pursuing that notion with their research in the eponymous lighthouse project.

Prof. Thomas Otto, acting director of Fraunhofer ENAS, heads up the Go Beyond 4.0 lighthouse project. It is a joint effort of six institutes, the Fraunhofer Institutes for Laser Technology ILT, for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering IOF, for Silicate Research ISC, for Machine Tools and Forming Technology IWU, and for Manufacturing Technology and Applied Materials Research IFAM.

Components like these are used in the additive inkjet printing process, for example, for lab-on-a-chip systems.
© Fraunhofer IOF
Components like these are used in the additive inkjet printing process, for example, for lab-on-a-chip systems.
Structures printed on glass fiber fabric serve to integrate heating into the fiber composite.
© Kay Michalak / Fotoetage
Structures printed on glass fiber fabric serve to integrate heating into the fiber composite.
Fraunhofer IFAM integrates printed functionalizations into fiber-reinforced plastics.
© Kay Michalak / Fotoetage
Fraunhofer IFAM integrates printed functionalizations into fiber-reinforced plastics.

Subprojects in aviation, automotive engineering and lighting

The researchers opted to go with three marketable applications. The Smart Wing subproject targets the aviation industry, Smart Luminaire the lighting technology sector, and Smart Door the automotive industry.

Subproject "Smart Door"

The object of the latter, a car door, vividly illustrates how the people in the Go Beyond 4.0 project are putting digital printing technology to work. Andre Bucht, head of Adaptronics at the Institute for Machine Tools and Forming Technology IWU, says, “Car doors have many electronic modules and mechatronic functions built in. Fraunhofer printing technology can be used to add components such as sensors, switches, LEDs and conductor pathways.”

To install a conductor track, engineers first print an insulation layer made of polymers onto the component, followed by the conductive silver paste and then another insulation layer. A printer applies all these layers that a laser then cures with high spatial resolution. Robot arms guide a dispenser or an inkjet system and a laser over the component. On a conventional assembly line, workers have to crawl into the car and install cable harnesses by hand.

 

Smart Luminaire – it’s all about light

Exciting innovations also figure prominently in the Smart Luminaire subproject. Dr. Erik Beckert, project manager at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering IOF in Jena, says, “I had had the basic idea of producing optical components using inkjet processes back at the IOF.” The Go Beyond 4.0 lighthouse project provided the perfect opportunity to explore it further. This subproject aims to make polymer optical components in an additive process. Inkjet printers serve to customize and add functions to existing optical components such as plastic lenses. For their ink, Beckert and his team are using ORMOCER®, an optical hybrid polymer developed by the ISC at Würzburg. The optical properties of this material come very close to those of good optical glass and can be adapted to the given application.

Various functions can be integrated into the process chain for aircraft components made of fiber-reinforced composites.
© Kay Michalak / Fotoetage
Various functions can be integrated into the process chain for aircraft components made of fiber-reinforced composites.

Smart Wing: Wired for warmth

A truck with a big tank arriving to spray de-icing fluid over the wings is a familiar wintertime sight for passengers looking out the window of an airplane, longing for it to taxi out for take-off. Dr. Volker Zöllmer and his team expect that that truck could be soon be obsolete if the Smart Wing subproject gets off the ground and soars. Dr. Zöllmer heads up the Smart Systems department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Applied Materials Research IFAM. Its researchers have succeeded in integrating heating lines to defrost wings from the inside out. This handy capability also comes courtesy of printers. They apply silver paste to print current-carrying conductor tracks into the wing’s fiber composite material.

This built-in defroster is just one of the applications on the team’s R&D agenda. The Smart Wing can be also equipped with sensors to measure temperature or pressure in the wing or fuselage of an aircraft. These functions are deeply embedded in the composite material, which in aircraft construction typically consists of plastics reinforced with glass or carbon fiber. Sensors could also detect damage to the aircraft fuselage caused by bird strikes.

The ties that bind

Although these applications are quite diverse, the three subprojects have much in common. The object of each is not just to make products; they all go to demonstrate the possibilities of technology. The ability to print conductor pathways into car doors may be put to good use elsewhere – in the interior or on the dashboard, to stick with the automotive example. Much the same holds true for the Smart Wing. The techniques outlined above would also work for civilian drones, wind turbines, and automotive and mechanical engineering applications.

Zöllmer is quick to point out another aspect: “For the Go Beyond 4.0 project, we also set ourselves the goal of developing manufacturing process chains further so they can then be executed at a much faster rate and more efficiently, even for highly customized products.” The key enabler here is the pairing of conventional manufacturing processes with digitally controlled manufacturing methods. The equation is simple: assembly line plus robot plus printer equals fast, effective customizing.

 

The team is the star

The management team’s constructive collaboration has helped steer the Go Beyond 4.0 project to success. Emphasizing this point, Deputy Project Coordinator Ralf Zichner says, “This was never about one institute striving for a certain result. Instead, the participating institutes are interacting as equals, which is the key to success.” All stakeholders are confident that the objectives will be achieved by the time the project wraps up in November 2019. Baumann expects that the technologies “will be established in German companies in three to five years at the latest.” Consumers are sure to be delighted with the outcome – mass-manufactured products that are personalized to suit their tastes, just like that pie at the pizzeria round the corner.