Professor Dr.-Ing. Jörg Franke, Head of the Department of Manufacturing Automation and Production Systems (FAPS) at Friedrich Alexander University in Erlangen-Nuremberg. (photo: FAPS Erlangen)

Face-to-Face Dialogue is Unsurpassed

Energy and resource-optimised production is a research focal point at the Department of Manufacturing Automation and Production Systems (FAPS) in Erlangen. An exclusive interview with the director, Professor Dr.-Ing. Jörg Franke, sheds light on the importance of close interaction between industry and research for mid-sized companies, as well as on teaching and research in times of corona and on the importance of a personal exchange of ideas and experience at trade fairs.

How have procedures and work at the Department of Manufacturing Automation and Production Systems in Erlangen (FAPS) changed due to corona?

The procedures at our department have changed as a consequence of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, but the substance of our work in research and teaching has not been affected by external influences. Due to the fact that we’ve been providing all employees with laptops for about ten years now, and because we’ve been making intensive use of a flexible work-from-home arrangement for a long time, we’ve been able to continue our scientific research work without any delays. Of course we continue experimental work on-site in our research laboratories – subject to strict hygiene rules and contact restrictions but nevertheless very effectively. The most challenging aspect is without a doubt the maintenance of creative informal collaboration, within the context of which the most promising ideas are often born. This is why we continue to hold all of our regular department events digitally. For example, all 120 faculty members meet via video conference at the end of each month to share new general developments within the setting of our FAPS discourse, and to discuss new research content at the FAPS Colloquium. As I see it, our accessibility to each other at the department’s various locations has even been significantly improved thanks to internet-based communication systems. We digitalised our entire curriculum nearly instantaneously in order to maintain teaching operations even in times of social distancing. Our digital content covering all aspects of manufacturing automation reaches roughly 1000 students. During our lectures, most of which are held live, students can ask questions at any time via chat which are answered immediately by academic support staff. At the same time, we record all of our teaching events which makes it possible to listen to them at any time, repeatedly.

Is your research work seriously inhibited – or is it even suffering a setback?

Due to the diverse opportunities provided by the digital transformation, as well as the immense amounts of time saved by no longer having to travel to work, project meetings and international congresses, and thanks to significantly increased efficiency in our routine meetings, we’re left with much more leeway for gaining productive, substantive insights. I’d say our research is being pushed rather than inhibited. However, it’s possible that our intense collaboration with industry could suffer, because many companies are understandably placing priority on internal issues or may even be running into economic difficulties. Thanks to a strong network consisting of many long-standing partners with whom we foster close cooperation, we’re able to cope well with these challenges.

The global pandemic situation has boosted digitalisation across the board and has made its necessity plainly apparent. How do you currently assess the state of digitalisation in the field of machinery manufacturing?

Industry 4.0 isn’t just a highly successful global campaign for digitalisation in the field of machinery and systems engineering – it also impressively demonstrates the interpretive sovereignty of German companies where the digitalisation of production is concerned. Know-how built up in recent years, expanded product functions and new service offerings are penetrating beneficial applications as a result of corona, amongst others in the fields of product engineering and automation, as well as process optimisation and maintenance. At the same time, entirely new digital business models are opening up an incredibly large number of new opportunities. I’m particularly impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit which has been kindled amongst my scientific staff and students, who are making masterful use of the methods and tools of artificial intelligence and machine learning to transfer these highly promising technologies into the established settings of manufacturing companies. We’re certainly one of the global frontrunners in terms of close networking amongst successful international market leaders and hidden champions with young creative start-ups and cutting-edge production research.

Modern, contemporary demands placed upon production equipment include rapidity, efficiency and cost optimisation. In concrete terms, what do mid-sized machinery manufacturing companies need in order to keep pace with current requirements?

From my point of view, the willingness and courage to change must become even more firmly established in corporate cultures. Technical perfection, absolute customer orientation and the strictest ethical standards are our greatest assets in the face of international competition. Perhaps we could bring our innovative strength to the market even more quickly in the future, and adhere less rigidly to patterns of behaviour which are certainly successful but in some cases outdated. In particular, close intermeshing of industry and internationally leading research in the fields of automation, production and materials is a significant competitive advantage that mid-sized companies could also take advantage of to a greater extent. The gap between actual industrial practice and application-oriented research is often especially large in the fields of digitalisation and networked production, as well as for artificial intelligence applications. Highly effective public programmes for research funding and new opportunities involving increased tax allowances for development expenditures, in combination with efficient, well equipped and highly cooperative university institutes, can serve as an excellent basis for setting the pace in this dynamic, technological environment.

One of your research projects deals with energy optimisation in automated production systems in order to reduce power demand and CO2 emissions. Which insights have you gained thus far?

Energy and resource-optimised production is a research focal point at the Department of Manufacturing Automation and Production Systems (FAPS), and we’re continuously working on a large number of innovative projects in this area. For example, we successfully concluded the Green Factories Bavaria project – a collaborative undertaking in which we were able to tap into immense potential for climate-neutral production in 50 research projects together with twelve universities and roughly 100 companies. Our present project, which is currently in a funded conceptualisation phase, involves the conversion of electrical supply power to direct current in the production department and targets the use of SiC-based power electronics, which are rapidly gaining ground in the automotive industry at the moment, as well as comprehensive sensor-based measurement, control and storage of energy streams, and the incorporation of regenerative energies. Significant energy savings can be achieved with this concept. In particular where drive systems are concerned, SiC components facilitate significantly lower switching losses at greater switching frequencies, as well as higher operating temperatures and voltages as compared with conventional Si technology. DC systems also minimise power demand by reducing energy conversion processes and simplifying cable systems. The use of machine-learning algorithms in edge-cloud energy management systems permits ideal demand-driven adjustment of process parameters. A close-knit sensor network and intelligent, learning controllers are expected to provide the most significant optimisation approach, which is nevertheless difficult to quantify in general terms. This makes it possible to identify energy waste on an ad-hoc basis, as well as to significantly optimise manufacturing and logistics processes and synchronise them in terms of energy. This enables recuperation and optimised energy efficiency by means of adaptive production systems. Ultimately, consistent use of renewable energy sources and suitable energy storage solutions can make production entirely carbon neutral.

Within the context of another research project, your department is exploring the use of autonomous flying robots for in-plant, fully autonomous transport of goods from picking stations. Is this what the future will look like in production facilities as well?

The use of autonomous flying robots permits floor-free overhead transport of urgently needed spare parts, tools and production materials – quickly and in a highly flexible manner. Cyclical transport of small parts using flying robots also harbours potential for industrial applications. And thus the use of autonomous flying robots will become an established practice in tomorrow’s production and logistics facilities. Amongst other things, flying robots conduct fully automated inventory processes, as well as automated inspection, monitoring and surveying tasks. Where the in-house transport of goods is concerned, we also foresee a significant increase in flexibility in the future through the use of various autonomous floor-bound transport systems.

Our industry sector is urgently awaiting the return to a personal exchange of technical ideas and experience – above all at Motek 2021. In your opinion, how important are live, on-site trade fairs?

I generally attach great importance to on-site trade fairs and a personal exchange of technical ideas and experience. Although digitally held trade fairs are already demonstrating their fundamental feasibility in this format, face-to-face dialogue is unsurpassed. And thus I hope we’ll have the opportunity to meet in person again more frequently this year.