The business and operational changes that manufacturers have adopted as a result of COVID-19—from working remotely to restricting travel to dealing with disrupted supply chains—are fairly ubiquitous across just about every segment, including the automation suppliers that make, service, and support the technology and equipment installed at manufacturing sites.
At Festo, for example, the electric and process automation company installed 6,000 VPN nodes in one day to keep its staff connected companywide while enabling them to continue to deliver the pneumatic and electrical expertise its customers require to keep production up and running. At the same time, the industrial automation company launched several projects to help in the fight against coronavirus, including the development of an emergency ventilator that uses digital pneumatics, aiding in the making of face masks produced in a container that can be moved to different ports, as well as helping in the development of antibody test devices by supplying valves and pressure regulators for compact mobile on-site laboratory devices in doctors’ offices and hospitals.
During Festo Germany’s TechTalk 2020, a virtual event the company held in association with Hannover Virtual Fair, Festo representatives addressed how the company is making customers more efficient—even during these difficult times—all while keeping an eye on the future. Specifically, the industrial automation supplier highlighted efforts underway that utilize digital data to support sustainability, education, as well as innovations in bionic technology.
Festo is making products that save energy, like its motion terminal that can control airflow in a more responsive way, thereby lowering the pressure level of the compressed air system and saving up to 60% in energy usage. While reducing pressure in a standard operation can be done manually, it is a time-consuming task that often does not get done. “We digitized it to make it easier for the customer to lower energy,” said Marcus Stemler, product manager of digital pneumatics at Festo.
And, while some may think that the ability to reduce energy requires sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI), Festo officials say that’s simply not true. “An IoT gateway, controller, sensor, and a data interface is all you need to bring data to the cloud or on premise to a dashboard for the customer,” said Dr. Frank Melzer, Festo’s member of the management board for product and technology management.
Of course, once in the dashboard, AI can be used on the data to optimize energy streams and find abnormalities, Melzer said, demonstrating that an AI system can learn how a device works in response to pressure changes in order to manage movement while minimizing energy usage.
Understanding that machine builders may not have the expertise required to make decisions about what kind of technology is best to help with energy efficiency, Festo offers an energy saving consulting service that can analyze the compressed air systems to find weak points, as well as offer application engineering services.
But Festo’s offerings go beyond products and consulting services to also encompass education. That’s because being a life-long learner is essential in the ever-changing digital age.
Bionics in Education
As energy efficiency enters every conversation around automation projects, Festo has turned to nature to understand how to optimize movement. For example, this year, Festo created the BionicSwift which mimics the movement of the small swift or swallow birds. When designing the robotic bird, the focus was on the use of lightweight structure, just like the biological role model, which gives it aerodynamic agility and energy efficiency.
“Using 3D technology, we optimized the structure with high material efficiency,” said Karoline von Häfen, head of bionic projects at Festo. “Less weight means less energy consumption.”
The lightweight wings fan out during the upstroke so that air can flow through the wing, which means the birds need less force to pull the wing up. During the downstroke, the wings close up to generate more power to fly. “Agile and small, they can fly curving and looping, and you can hardly tell them apart from their natural role model,” von Häfen said.
So, what does the bionic bird mean to manufacturing? “[Using] the intelligent networking of a flying object, you can create a 3D navigation system for the factory of the future,” von Häfen said. “You can also use autonomous flight robots for material transportation to improve the use of space in the factory.”
Festo has invested in bionic technology to not only help visualize what the factory of the future could do, but to also inspire future generations. Using bionics as an educational tool is the perfect way to engage with students at an early age. To do that, Festo has combined biology, mechanics, and robotics into a kit for education. A bionic fish, for example, can be optimized to swim faster or slower. A bionic flower mimics sensitivity to light or how leaves open and close.
“Digitization has two facets. One is as a subject matter, you can’t do it if you don’t understand the cloud, Big Data, and IT,” said Dr. Hans Jörg Stotz, chairman of the management board of Festo Didactic SE. “But also its impact on learning. We are seeing during the coronavirus that the ways we communicate and consume knowledge has changed. Digital media is more prevalent [as is] mobile learning as people want self-paced learning. Going forward, we see AI will be part of this as the next step in the learning path. This is how digitization is beginning to shape learning in the future.”
Indeed, as the industry changes, it will require new types of interactions between humans, machines, and data, Festo officials said.