A consortium of partners including mechanical engineering company TRUMPF has established the first industry standard for positioning technologies.
Mechanical engineering is a mainstay of German industry, whether for wood, metal, plastic or textiles processing. According Commerzbank Industrie Research (CIR), the sector’s continued increase in revenues – last year rising to 232.5 billion euros – is testimony to its flexibility in terms of production range and core competencies. Productivity is on the up as fixed costs come down. But with a large number of specialist and high-tech machines in operation, reliable logistics processes between manufacturers and their supplier landscape are becoming more and more critical. In other words, thousands of parts and components need to be in the right place at the right time. For example, in Ditzingen near Stuttgart.
Here, at the headquarters of mechanical engineers TRUMPF, founded in 1923, it’s all about developing and digitally connecting production technology. Today, TRUMPF builds its highly complex equipment, systems and tools for punching, bending, welding and cutting at sites around the world – from Mexico and the USA, to Japan and China. With 14,500 employees, the company is a market and technology leader in machining and lasers for industrial production. Its own software solutions have long supported a smart factory approach and enabled high-tech processes in industrial electronics. In order to make its manufacturing technology even more cost-effective, precise and future-proof, the group is working on improving its own efficiency as well as upstream and downstream processes.
To this end, in spring TRUMPF will unveil its new omlox positioning technology standard, which the southern German company developed with its partners. The standard is a response to the increasing use of localization and positioning solutions in industrial production. omlox hails a whole new way of communicating – because it supports the use of positioning devices from multiple hardware vendors, as well as the integration of diverse technologies, such as ultra-wideband, RFID, 5G and GPS on the software side. “The aim of this initiative is to make it easier for manufacturers to use hardware and software from multiple vendors. This saves effort and costs for the end customer,” explains Thomas Schneider, development manager at TRUMPF. However, since a company cannot define and establish a new industry standard on its own, TRUMPF united more than 60 partners from Europe, Asia and the USA to form a consortium. The largest system integrators in the project were Deutsche Telekom and T-Systems.
The majority of companies, from logistics players to manufacturers, have long been deploying digital tools to optimize their supply chains – but they are almost always different tools. For example, sensors that detect and report machine failures and malfunctions at an early stage, or track-and-trace solutions that measure the exact location, vibrations and ambient temperature of goods in real time. These solutions help companies save time and money – whether with short-term repairs or long-term data analysis. Yet, totally transparent supply chains have so far been a far-off dream. Christian Lüders, IoT Offering Manager at T-Systems, knows why: "There are currently no positioning solutions available that allow data to flow inside and outside the production area and that can be integrated as standard with the IT infrastructure."
omlox aims to connect the factory and make it the central powerhouse of the supply chain. In order to determine the precise location of assets such as tools to the nearest decimeter, positioning solutions in factory environments have to overcome hurdles like an abundance of metal that reflects or obstructs radio waves. Ultra-wideband (UWB) has proven to be a particularly robust radio technology. These radio waves enable driverless transport systems or drones, for example, to more accurately calculate the position of objects and better navigate. Whether for tracking or for use with Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) that move products, pallets and packages from A to B, precision positioning is the basis for valuable applications such as anti-collision detection. The new omlox standard allows devices from different providers within the same UWB area to directly connect with one another, similar to the plug-and-play USB and Bluetooth principle used in consumer technology.
But the technology varies depending on the nature of the task. Does the situation call for 100-meter accuracy or centimeter-precision? One reason for the wide variety of technologies is cost. The business model of many providers relies heavily on proprietary rather than standardized positioning solutions. But this creates vendor lock-in for customers. omlox is designed to create standardization and establish an ecosystem based on open software development kits and hardware designs that will break down these silos.
Essentially, the omlox hub provides a kind of translation aid, enabling multiple technologies like UWB, WLAN, GPS, cellular positioning (e.g. 5G) to talk to each other. The market for track-and-trace technologies is extremely varied and not every technology is suitable for every section of the supply chain.
Depending on the application, WLAN, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and ultra-wideband (UWB) are best suited to localizing goods in closed rooms such as warehouses. Radio frequency identification (RFID), on the other hand, is ideal for precise, non-continuous positioning, for example when goods are passing from one point to another. This technology is particularly useful for registering goods that leave the production line. However, it cannot work everywhere, but only where RFID readers that can extract data from electronic tags on the goods have been installed.
The best way to track vehicles and goods in transit is via GPS and mobile networks. But each technology is different in its range, accuracy, and the stability of its functions and processes. Deploying multiple radio technologies across the supply chain can lead to problems and lost data, for example.
Until now, individual parts of the supply chain were transparent, but higher-level systems that efficiently connect technologies in a standardized way did not yet exist. As a result, there was no overview of the entire supply chain. Manually integrating silo solutions and the data they contain is a complex task, making end-to-end networking almost impossible.
To enable a big-picture view of the supply chain, all data must be synchronized and positioning data transferred to a central coordinate system. “Systems integrators like T-Systems connect data from the positioning systems of multiple vendors and integrate it into an Edge Cloud Platform,” explains Sandro Schmidt, who is responsible at T-Systems for the automotive supply and manufacturing industry in southern Germany. This includes everything from the IoT sensor data from various solution providers, to data from production control systems. Central to this is the “milk run”, which aligns and coordinates the varying needs of procurement, production and distribution logistics. What’s more, machine learning and AI strategies support the automated integration of diverse data.
These technologies can help save time for loading and unloading goods, as well as delivering weather and traffic alerts that enable more precise determination of delivery times. In addition, they can calculate the optimal usage period for transport resources such as containers and racks. This not only prevents interruptions to production, but also greatly reduces the amount of capital tied up in production aids.