Jun 20, 2024

How and why software-defined manufacturing is changing the industry

The future of production lies in digital, automated processes. This is the only way for companies to become flexible and less affected by spontaneous market developments and skilled labor shortage. Software-defined manufacturing (SDM) is the name of the evolution that underlies this change in production conditions. What sets this apart from conventional methods is the fact that software and software-supported technologies are at the very center of manufacturing processes.

SDM promises a more efficient production method and a substantial enhancement in the adaptability of production lines. Innovations and new business models can also be advanced more rapidly in a software-centric production environment.

The basics of Software-defined Manufacturing (SDM)

In traditional manufacturing, machines and systems are central and controlled by hardware, specifically the PLC. Software-defined manufacturing shifts this concept by controlling hardware, including the PLC, through dynamic software systems or platforms. This approach optimizes the hardware and the entire production chain. A key advantage is the ability for companies to respond to market changes almost in real time, as adjustments to new requirements, designs, and production processes can be made via software updates rather than physical modifications. SDM incorporates essential digital technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, and artificial intelligence (AI).
SDM platforms facilitate real-time monitoring and adjustment of production processes, leading to reduced downtime, improved quality, lower error rates, and increased production capacity. They enable flexible retooling of production lines, which is especially advantageous for industries with high product variability. This approach accelerates production times, enhances production flexibility, and lowers operating costs through optimized production and increased productivity.

The role of IT-OT-Convergence

The convergence of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) plays a central role in software-defined manufacturing. This convergence leads to a seamless integration of data and control flows between administrative and production-related areas of a company, creating a bridge between the office and production. By integrating IT and OT systems, production data can be registered and analyzed in real time. This increases transparency and assists in making precise and well-founded decisions. Convergence enables companies to anticipate problems in production before they occur or, if they do, to react quickly and resolve them before they lead to major disruptions. IT-OT convergence encourages the development of predictive maintenance strategies, which in turn increases uptime and reduces unplanned downtime. In addition, IT-OT convergence can achieve efficiency gains and cost savings by eliminating redundant systems and processes. The integration of IT and OT is a decisive step towards a fully networked and intelligent production environment that forms the foundation for the factory of the future.

Hyperconvergence in manufacturing

Hyperconvergence extends the idea of convergence by unifying storage, computing and network operations in a single, organized system architecture. This enables companies to simplify and centrally manage their IT landscape, reducing administrative burden while increasing the flexibility and responsiveness of production systems. It eliminates data silos and decouples interlinked control units.

Hyperconvergence enables quick reactions to changes in production by dynamically reallocating resources as required. This is particularly beneficial in environments with frequently changing production requirements, as companies can react faster and more efficiently to new market demands. Thanks to the high modularity of the systems, they can easily be adapted to changing production conditions.

In manufacturing companies, hyperconverged systems can reduce IT footprints while increasing performance and capacity. The centralized management of resources through a hyperconverged infrastructure improves responsiveness to demands from the production process. It facilitates the implementation of advanced analytics that help optimize the entire manufacturing process.

Use Case: SDM at the Stuttgart machine factory

At the Stuttgart machine factory of the ISW (Institute for Control Technology of Machine Tools and Production Equipment), we have successfully applied the capabilities of SDM in practice. Machine and AGV (Automated Guided Vehicle) process orchestration is conducted independently of the manufacturer using digital twins. High-performance, parallel communication between digital twins, machines, and IT systems is facilitated via standard protocols such as OPC UA and REST. Products, processes, and resources are interconnected and can be adjusted flexibly. Interactions are recorded as discrete events to ensure full transparency and flexibility. Contextual data recording provides an excellent foundation for AI-based optimizations. Real-time process monitoring is achieved through NVIDIA Omniverse visualization. Ascon Systems is thus delivering a comprehensive and powerful industrial metaverse application within SDM4FZI.

The use case proves that software-defined manufacturing can lead to even more advantages. The process can be changed online and visualized remotely and in real time. The 3D platform NVIDIA Omniverse is used for visualization in this use case. Additionally, employees on site can receive all necessary system status and maintenance information on their tablets, rendering terminals and paperwork obsolete. This makes it possible to demonstrate the advantages of software-defined manufacturing itself, as well as the potential for refitting brownfield environments.

Ascon Systems SDM4FZI demonstrator with 3D

This and other use cases illustrate the many possible uses and applications of software-defined manufacturing. They are described in detail on the project website https://www.sdm4fzi.de.

Basis for the software-defined factory - the factory of the future

Technologies like SDM enable the "factory of the future," characterized by highly automated and flexible production facilities that leverage digital control to swiftly respond to market changes and individual customer needs. Robotics, advanced automation, AI, and machine learning are key to enhancing efficiency and reducing errors. In these factories, all systems and machines are interconnected and centrally monitored and controlled, allowing for continuous process optimization and quick adaptation to new requirements. Sensors and networked devices collect and analyze data in real time to improve production and quality. These factories are more efficient and sustainable, optimizing material and energy use. Additionally, they offer a safer and more ergonomic work environment, as robots handle many hazardous or repetitive tasks. The factory of the future signifies a major shift in manufacturing through the integration of SDM and other advanced technologies.

A research consortium comprising experts from science and industry, including our participation, is currently exploring the potential of software-defined manufacturing in the automotive and supplier sectors through the publicly funded project "SDM4FZI - Software-defined Manufacturing for the Automotive and Supplier Industry". The project is set to conclude at the end of 2024, with initial results to be showcased at the Stuttgart Innovation Days on September 17th and 18th, 2024.

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