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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation

Digital Factory

Defects: A Vanishing Species?

At Siemens' Amberg Electronics Plant, Simatic programmable logic controls (PLCs) manage the production of PLCs.

Want to know how manufacturing will change over the next few years? Then take a look at Siemens’ electronics plant in Amberg, Germany. There, products already communicate with production machines, and IT systems control and optimize all processes to ensure the lowest possible defect rate.

Everything is clean and germ-free. Looking for a piece of dust here is comparable to searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Employees wear blue coveralls and walk noiselessly across spotless white-and-blue marble-patterned PVC floors. Chest-high blue-and-gray machine cabinets stand in a row. Between them are monitors displaying floods of data that scroll downwards like waterfalls. Indicator lamps flash red and green, while long rows of halogen lamps bathe the hall in a bright, cool light. A little daylight filters into the hall through a few slit-like windows that reach from floor to ceiling. The light shows that spring has finally arrived. Assembly lines clack, a forklift hums, and air-controlled valves hiss. What seems at first glance to be as antiseptic as a hospital operating room is in fact the factory hall of Siemens' Amberg Electronics Plant (German abbreviation: EWA).

Automating Production of Automation Systems

Instead of treating patients, the facility, which Siemens established in 1989, produces Simatic programmable logic controls (PLCs). The devices are used to automate machines and equipment in order to save time and money and increase product quality. They control ski lifts and the onboard systems of cruise ships as well as industrial manufacturing processes in sectors from automobile production to pharmaceuticals.

Siemens’ Amberg plant produces one Simatic control unit every second.

Twelve Million PLCs per Year

Siemens is the world's leading PLC supplier, and the EWA is the company's showcase plant for these systems. Production quality is at 99.99885 percent, and a series of test stations detect the few defects that do occur. “I don't know of any comparable plant worldwide that has achieved such a low defect rate,” says Professor Karl-Heinz Büttner, who heads the EWA. The factory manufactures 12 million Simatic products per year. At 230 working days per year, this means that the EWA produces one control unit every second.

Production is largely automated. Machines and computers handle 75 percent of the value chain on their own; the rest of the work is done by people. Only at the beginning of the manufacturing process is anything touched by human hands, when an employee places the initial component (a bare circuit board) on a production line. From that point on, everything runs automatically. What's notable here is that Simatic units control the production of Simatic units. About 1,000 such controls are used during production, from the beginning of the manufacturing process to the point of dispatch.

Over 60,000 Customers Worldwide

At the beginning of the manufacturing process, conveyor belts take the bare circuit boards to a printer, which uses a photolithographic process to apply a lead-free solder paste. In the next step, placement heads mount individual components, such as resistors, capacitors, and microchips, onto the circuit boards. The fastest production line can mount 250,000 components per hour — a process that is controlled by Simatic units. Once the soldering process has been completed, the printed circuit boards arrive at an optical test system, where a camera examines the position of the soldered components while an X-ray machine inspects the quality of the soldered connection points. Next, each printed circuit board is mounted into a housing. It is then retested and sent to a delivery center in Nuremberg. From there the PLCs are shipped to more than 60,000 customers all over the world. About 20 percent are sent to China; the rest are mainly sold to customers in Germany, the U.S., and Italy.

Although production in Amberg is highly automated, human beings ultimately make the decisions. For example, Johannes Zenger, an electronics technician, supervises the test station for populated printed circuit boards, even though he himself doesn't test the components and circuitry. “My workplace is the computer,” he says. Like his colleagues, Zenger can monitor the entire value chain from his workplace. That's because each circuit board has its own unique barcode that lets it communicate with the production machines. More than one thousand scanners document all of the manufacturing steps in real time and record product details such as soldering temperature, placement data, and test results.

Networking R&D with Production

As this happens, around 50 million pieces of process information are generated each day and stored in the Simatic IT manufacturing execution system. “In short,” explains Büttner, “we can observe every product's lifecycle down to the last detail.”

Software defines all of the manufacturing processes and commands so that production can be recorded and controlled from start to finish. The system is also closely networked with the R&D department. NX and Teamcenter, both of which are Siemens PLM software solutions, directly supply the manufacturing processes with the latest Simatic updates. Because the Amberg plant manufactures a thousand different products, very close cooperation with the plant's R&D department is essential.

About 50 million pieces of process information are generated each day. Thanks to this information base every product’s lifecycle is traceable.

Talking Products

The Amberg Electronics Plant is an advanced example of Siemens' Digital Enterprise Platform — a production environment that could become standard ten years from now. Here, products control their own manufacturing processes. In other words, their product codes tell production machines what requirements they have and which production steps must be taken next. This system marks the first step toward the creation of Industry 4.0. In this vision of a fourth industrial revolution, the real and the virtual manufacturing worlds will merge. Factories will then be largely able to control and optimize themselves, because their products will communicate with one another and with production systems in order to optimize manufacturing processes. Products and machines will determine among themselves which items on which production lines should be completed first in order to meet delivery deadlines. Independently operating computer programs known as software agents will monitor each step and ensure that production regulations are complied with.

Individualized Production

The Industry 4.0 vision also foresees factories that will be able to manufacture one-of-a-kind products without being unprofitable, as they will produce items quickly, inexpensively, and in top quality. In spite of its highly automated processes, EWA nevertheless relies on people for the development and design of products, production planning, and the handling of unexpected incidents. That won't change in the future. “I doubt whether there will be any machines in the foreseeable future that can think independently and work intelligently without human aid,” explains Büttner. This assessment is confirmed by a glance in the EWA hall. Around 300 people work the current shift, and the EWA has a total of about 1,100 employees.

Employees with Ideas

“We're not planning to create a workerless factory,” says Büttner. After all, the machines themselves might be efficient, but they don't come up with ideas for improving the system. Büttner adds that the employees' suggested improvements account for 40 percent of annual productivity increases. The remaining 60 percent is a result of infrastructure investments, such as the purchase of new assembly lines and the innovative improvement of logistics equipment. The basic idea here, says Büttner, is that “employees are much better than management at determining what works or doesn't work in daily operation and how processes can be optimized.” In 2013 the EWA adopted 13,000 of these ideas and rewarded employees with payments totaling around €1 million.

Forty percent of annual productivity increases are based on employees' ideas; 60 percent result from investments in infrastructure.

Top Notch Efficiency in China

The small Bavarian town of Amberg and the Chinese megacity of Chengdu have little in common, yet each is home to a state-of-the-art Siemens production facility for automation technology. The Siemens Electronic Works Chengdu (SEWC) in Southwest China opened in February 2013. Many parts of the plant replicate its Amberg counterpart, and Simatic controllers are also manufactured at SEWC.”We want to be close to our customers,” explains Jochen Berger, Project Coordinator at EWA. That puts the focus on China, the world’s largest market for automation technology and second only to the European market for programmable logic controllers. The software tools and production sequences are the same in Chengdu and Amberg. The Chengdu facility even looks like EWA.

But the SEWC is still being developed. And its level of automation is still lower than Amberg’s 75 percent. The range of products is not yet comparable. However, SEWC is certainly the equal of the Amberg Electronic Works where energy efficiency is concerned. The SEWC plant recently received LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification at the gold level. Compared with similar buildings, the plant uses about 2,500 metric tons less water, discharges about  820 metric tons less CO2, and saves about €116,000 in energy costs each year thanks to smart building technology. The plant is the first in Chengdu to receive LEED Gold certification.

SEWC employs about 350 people, half of whom work in production while the other half provide support. “We are still in the midst of development,” says Andreas Bukenberger,  SEWC’s general manager . “We are increasing skill levels here and training our new employees. The plan is to introduce  new products to the market, intensify  our marketing, and foster  contacts with suppliers, officials, and customers.”. To achieve those goals, SEWC is assiduously examining Amberg’s quality standards. Although the EWA is highly automated, its appearance hasn't changed much since 1989. “The plant now has more and bigger machines than it did 25 years ago,” explains Norbert Eckl, Head of Factory Planning at the EWA plant. However, a closer look reveals that work processes and results have also changed considerably. Even though the production area has remained unchanged and the number of employees has hardly increased, the plant now manufactures seven times as many units as it did in 1989.

More importantly, quality has increased substantially as well. Whereas the production facility had 500 defects per million (dpm) back in 1989, it now has a mere 12 dpm. “That's an impressive achievement,” says Büttner. In the background, you can hear assembly lines clack, a forklift hum, and air control valves hiss. Although the EWA isn't a hospital, it is something  of a birthplace for cutting-edge automation technology – making it a perfect model for its Chengdu counterpart.

Ulrich Kreutzer