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Robots Make Factories Smarter

Keba Robots Make Factories Smarter

Keba’s Systems Help Usher in the Next Industrial Revolution

By David Baum


Keba develops Java-based human-machine interfaces that control all types of industrial equipment.

Few industries have seen as much change and upheaval in the last decade as the manufacturing sector. Today’s modern factories bear little resemblance to the mills, plants, and assembly lines that defined industrial production throughout the twentieth century. Steady advancements in technology and increasing globalization have transformed not only our factories, but our manufacturing workforce as well. Take a tour of a modern automobile plant, for example, and you will see more robots than people. Routine production and assembly operations are performed by computer-driven machines. The factory workers who remain are mostly highly skilled technicians, designers, and engineers.

Many of these machines are equipped with advanced sensors that give them an uncanny awareness of their operating environments, as part of the rapidly growing Internet of Things (IoT)—physical objects with network connectivity that can send and receive data. In a modern factory, sensors not only guide the machines, but also provide information to fine-tune the operation as a whole. For example, if the heat or humidity on a production line varies outside of an acceptable range, that line can report this condition and adjust its activities automatically.

The intellectual capital in these versatile factory environments doesn’t lie so much with the equipment as with the software that controls it—a pervasive fabric of instructions that binds each robot to the global supply chain. Collecting and analyzing real-time production data dictates many aspects of the manufacturing cycle, from sourcing materials and customizing products to interacting with partners.

Keba AG, an engineering firm based in Linz, Austria, that designs and produces high-tech equipment for the industrial, energy, and banking sectors, is in the vanguard of these modern factory developments. In the field of industrial automation, Keba has built products for controlling injection molding machines and robotic systems. In the energy sector it is well known for its climate control systems and electric vehicle charging stations. Keba also develops bank terminals, parcel machines, lottery terminals, and custom hardware and software systems governing their use.

Hannes Bachmayr demonstrates a touchscreen system.

Hannes Bachmayr demonstrates a touchscreen system.

For the last several years, Keba’s software engineers have been immersed in the development of a Java-based environment for human-machine interfaces (HMIs) that operate the activities of all types of industrial equipment. One popular system, dubbed KeStudio View Edit, is a point-and-click environment that guides engineers as they develop HMIs for robots and other systems. Application engineers of Keba use KeStudio to design everything from motion controllers to keyless security systems.

“We are the guys setting up the software that enables people to interact with machines,” says Hannes Bachmayr, a software developer at Keba specializing in these human-machine connections. “Many of our important software components are based on Java.”

Global connections, local control

According to a report issued by the McKinsey Global Institute, the expense of owning and operating industrial robots has fallen by as much as 50 percent compared to human labor since 1990. This is due in part to sheer efficiency: Machines can operate around the clock and achieve unusually high precision in production and assembly processes. They don’t talk back or require a coffee break, and many of them can work in a lights-out environment, saving energy costs.

Many of these machines are controlled by HMI applications that dictate how they behave, such as positioning a robotic arm in an injection molding machine or training an infrared sensor to follow a heat source. KeStudio makes it easy to create HMI applications by shielding product designers and hardware engineers from the underlying code.

“KeStudio is easy to use because you don’t need to understand programming,” says Fabian Schöppl, a software architect in Keba’s industrial department who works closely with Bachmayr. “All of the controls are based on Java. When a user clicks Generate, KeStudio creates the Java code that controls the machines. And when they click the Start button, KeStudio fires up Java applications that govern a robot’s control, sensory feedback, and information-processing capabilities.”

Some of Keba’s products are powered by multipurpose hardware devices such as the CP-36 system KeControl C3. This versatile platform can be programmed to control 3-D printers, presses, and other machine tools using the KeStudio environment. KeControl C3 is powered by an Intel processor and runs Windows, Linux, and other operating systems. “Java is perfect for this multiplatform system because we can compile applications once and run them everywhere,” Bachmayr says. “Java also makes it easy to move applications from one computing environment to another.”

Keba software engineering team members share ideas.

Keba software engineering team members share ideas.

To ensure that Keba’s hardware and software environments are compatible with global manufacturing standards, Keba’s software engineers pay close attention to the proceedings of the OPC Foundation, an industry consortium chartered with ensuring compatibility among various types of industrial equipment. Adhering to OPC (which stands for object linking and embedding for process control) standards is especially important for the work Keba does with German automotive manufacturers, many of which are part of Industrie 4.0, a project sponsored by the German government to encourage the creation of “smart factories.” An important standards body for Industrie 4.0 and the IoT, OPC helps ensure compatible communication among industrial equipment and processes.

Dawn of an industrial era

Manufacturing consultants at Germany Trade & Invest, a government agency within the Federal Republic of Germany, believe Industrie 4.0 will pave the way for a fourth industrial revolution over the next couple of decades. As they see it, the first industrial revolution, which extended from the late eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, was defined by the shift from handcrafted goods to mechanical production methods. The second industrial revolution gained momentum at the start of the twentieth century with refined methods for industrial assembly and the mass production of products. Industrial revolution #3 started in the late 1960s with the rise of electronics and the consequent infusion of information technology into industrial processes.

As we stand on the threshold of a fourth industrial revolution, we can expect a manufacturing panacea that will combine today’s ubiquitous communication networks with the equipment in smart factories. Germany Trade & Invest is encouraging the development of technologies that can independently exchange information and manage their own industrial processes. Researchers use the term cyberphysical systems to describe this interplay between the virtual and physical worlds. These systems facilitate these connections in much the same way that the internet transformed personal communication and interaction.

Similar movements are afoot in the US with the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition, a nonprofit organization of manufacturers, suppliers, and technology companies that is supported by a consortium of universities, government agencies, and laboratories. The aim of this coalition is to foster collaborative R&D practices and encourage the formation of advocacy groups that can enhance manufacturing intelligence via common standards and platforms and shared infrastructure.

Industrial giant GE uses slightly different terminology to describe today’s manufacturing opportunities and upheavals. During a presentation at the D-Eleven conference in May 2013, CEO Jeffrey Immelt said GE pioneered the “Industrial Internet” to combine the positive effects of two transformative revolutions: the myriad machines, facilities, fleets, and networks that arose from the Industrial Revolution, and the more recent advances in computing, information, and communication systems that characterized the Internet Revolution.

One of GE’s goals is to bring designers, suppliers, and production engineers together to design and test goods virtually, without requiring them to be in close proximity to either the materials or the machines. This type of workforce, united by common projects and interests rather than location, points to another important attribute of today’s advanced manufacturing companies: their ability to break down geographic boundaries and create a smoothly functioning global workforce. For example, Bachmayr’s distributed team of software engineers includes science partners at the Software Competence Center Hagenberg in northern Austria and independent researchers at Johannes Kepler University. An additional software engineering team in other countries handles the finer nuances of Eclipse and JavaFX development.

“We get together every three to six weeks to present ideas, meet customers, and discuss requirements,” says Bachmayr. “In the interim we structure our development process based on well-structured increments called sprints.”

Versatile software for a new era

Keba’s Fabian Schöppl and Josef Milt test out a demo application.

Keba’s Fabian Schöppl and Josef Milt test out a demo application.

Bachmayr is adamant about the benefits of using Java for creating HMIs, and he has built a European team that reflects tremendous depth of experience with the Java ecosystem. “We selected Java for its ease of migration and platform independence, and because it has tons of plugins and third-party tools,” he states. He adds that the Keba team especially appreciates multitouch support with JavaFX, a software platform the team uses for creating rich desktop clients. “Java is an easy programming language to learn. Oracle is behind it, which benefits the community, and it’s part of a steady progression of new technologies such as the Leap Motion Controller and other modern input devices. We compared Java with .NET on multiple criteria, and Java won out 12 to 9.”

Despite differences in location, terminology, and equipment standards, Java unites Keba’s software engineers and, by extension, paves the way for the factories of tomorrow. “We have licensed Java Virtual Machines for ARM versions 5 and 7 so we can easily install our applications on robotic devices with no modification at all,” concludes Bachmayr. “Java runs on hundreds of mobile devices, operating systems, and embedded devices, so it was the obvious solution for these industrial applications.”  



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