Toward a more resilient society


How can we ensure the best response in an emergency?

In an acute emergency, rapid reaction is essential. The existence of a national disaster management system to coordinate all the emergency service enables swift mobilization and coordination of those forces. Along with partners from the public and private sectors, the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems FOKUS in Berlin has created a special facility for enacting a range of scenarios for this purpose. The so-called Safety Lab uses computer technology to generate highly realistic simulations of, for example, an extreme weather event or a major fire. This shows where various agencies are involved in the emergency response and provides a precise breakdown of specific processes. “Our lab demonstrates how to connect a wide variety of systems, ranging from control centers at fire departments and control stations for critical infrastructure to information systems for the general public,” explains Niklas Reinhardt, research associate in the collaborative safety and security business unit at Fraunhofer FOKUS. “The key question for our research is how to connect these decentralized solutions and, most importantly, how to involve the public in the information process.” Not only technical but also organizational and legal issues play an important role here. The Safety Lab has led to the development of technologies such as KATWARN, an international warning system used by millions of people, and KATRETTER, a system to coordinate the use of volunteers to assist the emergency services during crisis situations.

The global spread of the coronavirus has shown the importance of having unified and coordinated processes for crisis management. The EU is working – with the help of Fraunhofer – to establish uniform European standards in the field of disaster resilience. The Fraunhofer Institute for Technological Trend Analysis INT is part of the STRATEGY project, which gets underway in September. Its purpose is to strengthen technical and organizational interoperability for cross-border crisis management. This will involve tests and evaluation under realistic conditions of current, emerging and future standards.

Flexibility is a key part of the response phase and a key characteristic of resilient societies. As the pandemic unfolded, companies rushed to digitalize their processes so that employees could continue to work from home. At the same time, distilleries switched to producing sanitizers, and clothing manufacturers to making face masks. Automakers modified their additive-manufacturing systems in order to produce ventilators. In the field of resilience engineering, these are known as generic capabilities: the adaptation of available tools and skills for use beyond their actual application in order to be able to react rapidly to a given situation. The more resources and generic capabilities an organization has at its disposal, the greater its agility in implementing a resilience strategy. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology IPT in Aachen are experts in the adaptation of often highly specialized processes. On behalf of the company Moss, for example, they helped set up a production line for the manufacture of urgently required surgical face masks. Moreover, much of this work was done from home and in parallel steps. The company, which normally produces largescale printed fabrics for marketing purposes, is now manufacturing 40,000 of these certified surgical masks on a daily basis. Further production lines are now being set up, the aim being to increase output to several million masks per week.

Digital engineering

Digital engineering is the key to achieving greater flexibility in these uncertain times. “We are going to have to get used to the idea of ramping up production and then throttling it back down again whenever regional lockdowns disrupt supply chains or whenever employees or raw materials are in short supply,” Arlinghaus says. In the case of some plants, however, it is not so simple to shut them down. One option here is remote maintenance in order to continue operation. “We create a digital twin of the plant,” the manufacturing expert explains. “Then, in an emergency, you automatically have all the relevant information at your fingertips, without first having to conduct an inventory.” This in turn means that you can simulate – remotely and in real time – how best to modify the production operation.

Whenever supply chains fail or demand soars for specific products, additive manufacturing can offer a solution. A CAD file can be easily shared online, thereby enabling multiple manufacturers at different locations to produce urgently needed items. Dr. Philipp Imgrund from the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Additive Manufacturing Technologies IAPT in Hamburg believes that the coronavirus pandemic has shown that additive manufacturing makes us more resilient in a crisis: “It makes us more flexible in a new situation and means we can quickly overcome any shortages in, say, protective equipment or ventilator parts. In recent months, we have seen a lot of projects in which 3D printing has come to the rescue.” In the future, having 3D printing as an integral part of the production process may well give manufacturers a competitive advantage.

Titanilla Komenda is a robotics engineer at Fraunhofer Austria.
© Fraunhofer / Philipp Horak
Titanilla Komenda is a robotics engineer at Fraunhofer Austria. She expects the crisis to provide a big boost for automation and robotics.

Automatisierung und Robotik

There has also been a worldwide surge in developments in the field of automation and robotics. In China, for example, delivery and disinfection robots have been in big demand during the pandemic. China is also the world’s largest sales market for industrial robots. Here, however, employees in manufacturing still outnumber robots by far. In China, there are 140 robots for every 10,000 employees. In Germany, this figure is higher – 338 robots; and in Singapore, even higher – 831.

Titanilla Komenda from Fraunhofer Austria explains that robotics can help make Europe’s manufacturing industry more flexible. Her field of research is the use of collaborative robotics in production. “These so-called cobots interact closely with employees and are therefore not enclosed in protective cages,” she explains. “They have major potential to make manufacturing more flexible, because they enable you to adapt the degree of automation to your specific needs. During the pandemic, for example, there was a big rise in demand for face masks and disinfectant, which meant there was suddenly a need for a high degree of automation. But when demand falls and large volumes are no longer required, the use of cobots enables companies to adapt to this change.” In this case, the cobots can be easily reprogrammed to undertake lots of individual manufacturing steps. This demands a more intuitive programming. Komenda’s ultimate aim is that robots should be simple to reprogram and as easy to use as a cordless screwdriver. However, this may take some time, not least because of the rigorous safety requirements governing human-robot collaboration.