The networked factory - it can be experienced at Continental in Regensburg: in the pilot project Model Factory.
The networked factory - it can be experienced at Continental in Regensburg: in the pilot project Model Factory.
( Bild: Hans&Jung-GbR/Continental)

Smart factory Project model factory: How Continental networks its plant in Regensburg

Author / Editor: Thomas Günnel / Jochen Schwab

Collaborative robots, transport robots or driverless transport vehicles - the smart factory is partly a reality at Continental in Regensburg. The automotive supplier is now taking the next steps with the "Model Plant" pilot project.

Physically strenuous or repetitive activities are performed by collaborative robots, also known as cobots, which transport materials to the production line: two examples that are regarded as typical characteristics of the factory of the future - but they are only the beginning. It is networking with other systems based on cyber-physical systems that make robots part of the smart factory.

With the "Model Factory" pilot project, Continental wants to explore the possibilities in this field and "improve concrete, frequently occurring processes and routines," explains Markus Fischer, who heads the "Industry 4.0/Smart Factory" competence center for all the company's electronics plants worldwide and is head of Industrial Engineering in Regensburg. Of course, this is also about digital evolution, "whose speed we want to increase".

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The two-year pilot project will focus on three new procedures. The supplier is testing them in its plants in Regensburg and Zvolen, Slovakia - if they are successful, a rollout to all of the Group's worldwide automotive locations is planned. "What fits best into the plant? And what can be used as widely as possible? These were our key questions when selecting the topics," says Thomas Ebenhöch, site and plant manager at Continental Regensburg and responsible for the plant network in Karben, Villingen, Babenhausen and Regensburg.

Automate replenishment

One of the three focal points is automated replenishment control. The employees are testing a cyber-physical system for automatic material supply. Fischer: "Our goal is for the production line to 'know' what it has to produce and when on the basis of the production plan and to independently re-order the required material in the warehouse - from where it transports driverless transport vehicles to the appropriate locations.

The "eKanban" system controls software developed in-house by the supplier, which in turn communicates with the plant's ERP system. Sensors detect site-specific components that are not assigned to a sequence. One advantage is that the system does not require manual interaction. Components that are subject to a sequence are recognized by the system using software applications.

In this way, a fully automatic replenishment order can be implemented - without manual interaction. Continental intends to complete the pilot phase this year and implement the application in series production in the first two quarters of the coming year.

Networking warehouses and logistics

The second application of the project concerns warehouse and logistics optimization. An "Integrated Storage and Transportation System" (ISTS) is to digitize and network the processes in the logistics center - and in a further step automate them. "In order to relieve the workload of the warehouse employees, we are also implementing man-machine systems," says Ebenhöch.

This includes a simulation for outgoing goods packaging, in which warehouse employees stack different crates on pallets in a space-optimized manner. "So far, the result has been dependent on the experience of the respective employee, comparable to a Tetris game," describes Markus Fischer. "In order to achieve a balanced result, software will in future determine the ideal stack of crates and inform the employee of its arrangement: by Smartglass or on a tablet.

But the ISTS also looks beyond the edge of the warehouse: "Using a truck infeed control system, delivering drivers can book a time window. Using software, we know where the truck is, what goods it is delivering or picking up and how long it will take," describes Ebenhöch. In addition, drivers can check in themselves on arrival in the booked time window - this avoids traffic jams at the gate or the logistics center. The ISTS is subordinated to two other systems that help to record the goods in the warehouse.

The recording takes place fully automatically as in a large parcel center. The goods pass through a so-called "Scangate" and are identified. Urgently required goods can be diverted into a "fastlane" as required and prioritized like passengers at the airport. Both systems also enable the locations of the materials to be traced transparently at any time - search times are eliminated.

Real-time localization

„"What is where" is also the central question in the third project item "Geolocation and Geofencing". Geolocation is about locating vehicles and materials on the factory premises and displaying material flows: both in real-time.

The system basically consists of two components: a so-called anchor, which serves to determine the position and is mounted on a grid of ten by ten meters within the production environment. And from a "tag", a digital marking that is attached to the objects. "Geolocation can be imagined as an indoor GPS. Anything that has a 'tag' can be located," says Fischer.

The so-called "geofencing", which is added in the next stage of the project, works in a similar way: the delimitation of an area by a virtual "fence". If a tagged medium approaches this fence, an action is automatically triggered: for example, a simple alarm or a more complex function such as a rebooking in the logistics system. Continental has been piloting the system in two applications at the Regensburg model plant since 2018 - and is planning the roll-out for the entire plant: all production areas and the logistics center.

Integrating suppliers and customers

By the end of 2019, the supplier intends to implement seven additional applications. In a further pilot project, a supplier and probably a customer are to be integrated into the system - thus creating a transparent material flow in the supply chain. "Both systems are ultimately the basis for a digital twin," says Ebenhöch. "But the pilot project is not just about technical aspects. Of course, we have a vision of flexible and efficient processes, which is what we are concentrating on. But it's just as important to us to incorporate feedback from colleagues who deal with these processes on a daily basis."

However, the work of the project team is not limited to the applications of the "Model Plant" project - the team implements other, smaller projects. As with the cooperation between the production staff and the robots, cooperation is also very important here. Thomas Ebenhöch: "Digitization suggestions often come from the employees on site - and we are happy to take them up".

This article was first published in German by Automobil Industrie.