Smart Modules for Tomorrow’s Factory of Things

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Modular production sites, like smart factories, are on the verge of commercial viability. These intelligent factories consist of independent stations that communicate with each other and with the product via standardized interfaces. The underlying concept is “plug and produce.

Plug & Produce

“Our prototype of tomorrow’s factory of things is worldwide unique and the first of this dimension,” explains Detlef Zühlke, chairman of the technology initiative SmartFactoryKL.

It consists of nine modules, each manufactured and provided by a different partner company:

  • storage module,
  • engraving,
  • production,
  • force fitting,
  • robot module,
  • laser marking,
  • quality control,
  • weighing module
  • and a manual workstation.


The single modules can be connected instantly and easily “due to the fact that the modules use the same IT standards, like Ethernet, TCP/IP and OPC UA, which enable their interaction,” says Zühlke. He is optimistic that the final gap from vision to using them in reality will be bridged in 2016. However, he does not believe that complex products such as cars will be produced with complete automation within the next 10 years.

A 10-m.-Long Production Site at SPS

Soap dispensers and torches have already been produced successfully. The latest product line includes business card cases with either USB sticks or bottle openers included. To switch between the two productions, a change of the smart factory’s models is necessary. How this works, was demonstrated at the SPS IPC Drives in Nuremberg, where the nearly 10-meter-long unique production site was mounted.


“Each product contains a digital brain in form of an RFID chip that it receives at the beginning of the production process. Machine and product can communicate with each other without the need of human interaction,” says Zühlke. As the Industry 4.0 approach extends the Internet of Things (IoT) onto production sites, “the aim is to support producing companies in adapting more flexibly and quicker to shorter product lifecycles. And to help them reduce dependencies of one sole producer.”

A Test Bed Facility in Germany

Zühlke has been preparing the intelligent factory of the future for ten years with a test bed facility in Kaiserslautern in southern Germany. First supported by only seven industrial partners, the number has risen to 40 today. Among those are international heavyweights such as Cisco and IBM. Their common aim: fostering the implementation of the fourth industrial revolution. It is based on cyber-physical systems and follows mechanization, mass production and automation, which are crucial as the industrial revolution progresses.

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