Organise yourselves, components!

Article of 28 November 2014 

Intelligent components communicate with each other and configure themselves.

Who takes on which work steps, when does what have to be done: when it comes to team work, good organisation is everything. Often, only the task and a few framework conditions are specified, with the team members organising the rest themselves. This comes easy to us humans, because we use our ability to communicate and arrange things between ourselves.

A similar picture could emerge in the production of the future: machines and individual components will communicate with each other in future and organise their work procedures themselves to a large extent, without a higher-order control system specifying all the steps. Festo is working on this visionary picture of the future in various research projects.

Decentralised intelligence

The key is intelligent components, which can also configure themselves independently to form an overall system. They communicate both with each other and with the workpieces and exchange information, commands and diagnostic values. They therefore determine, for example, in which sequence a workpiece is machined, or control conveyor routes in an optimal manner. A unit could then signal precisely when it has free capacity so that the workpieces are directed to it.

“Thanks to this distributed intelligence, a production plant in the future can process subtasks autonomously, without a central computer having to control it,” says Bernd Kärcher from the Festo research department.

Systems configure themselves

Even the configuration process can be left to the system itself in future. Elaborate work steps, such as manual setting and programming, will be omitted due to the central intelligence of the individual components. One example of how such a self-configuring system could look, is the Festo WaveHandling.

In a pneumatic conveyor belt, a number of individual bellow modules deforms the surface in such a way that objects lying on it are transported to their destination by a wave motion. The individual modules can be put together in any way and configure themselves. The system detects how the individual bellow modules have been arranged and the computer creates a virtual illustration of the arrangement.

The principle of self-configuration creates new prospects anywhere that subsystems are expected to be immediately and flexibly integrated in the production process. “We then talk about “Plug and Produce” – installing components and starting to produce straight away,” says Bernd Kärcher.

The following films shows how the Festo WaveHandling works: