Over an area of 2.5 square kilometers (1.6 miles), 10,000 employees, more than 300 companies and one of Europe’s leading technical universities are collaborating on interdisciplinary solutions for key issues of the future such as digitalization and sustainability. The centerpiece of the new campus at RWTH Aachen University is the high-tech Demonstration Factory, which is part of the smart logistics research cluster.
At the heart of Western Europe, where Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands meet, the ultimate research landscape is taking shape. When completed, the new campus will comprise 16 research clusters designed to bring together science and industry to tackle the major issues of the future. Six of the clusters, which occupy dedicated spaces on the campus, have already begun work: smart logistics, sustainable energy, biomedical engineering, photonics, production engineering and heavy-duty drives.
Science and industry under one roof
“The idea of this project is to strengthen collaboration between science and industry under one organizational roof in the form of the clusters,” says Professor Volker Stich, head of the smart logistics cluster, of the motivation behind the RWTH Aachen Campus. Smart logistics is one of the first research clusters to begin work in Aachen. Around 100 research associates and 150 student research assistants are working together with more than 60 companies to develop new technologies and processes in this area. “We are focusing primarily on the IT behind logistics and the digitalization that supports the physical flow of materials in companies,” says Stich. The cluster’s laboratories can replicate the entire value chain from production and assembly to delivery.
A key feature of the smart logistics cluster is the Demonstration Factory, where production and logistics processes are being digitalized as part of a German initiative known as Industry 4.0. By closely allying research and practice, the cluster has created a high-tech production environment where partners from industry and research can examine and test new applications in real-life operations. This facility also serves to demonstrate new findings and solutions in advanced training seminars.
Demonstration Factory tests production processes
One of the several research projects in the Aachen cluster is the development of new electric vehicles and their digital production processes. Others include DHL Group’s “Street Scooter,” which will expand the company’s environmentally friendly delivery fleet. The scooter is meanwhile produced and sold by DHL to customers including the Nordsee restaurant chain.
Automated orders from the parts warehouse
The primary aim of engineers at the Demonstration Factory is to automate the flow of in-formation that accompanies material logistics in production. This data needs to be provided to the right people in the right place at the right time. Collecting and analyzing live data enables a dramatic reduction in decision-making times, increasing efficiency and even enabling system processes in the Industry 4.0 environment to optimize themselves. Sensor technologies in production warehouses, for example, enable automated recording of inventories in real time. Orders can be triggered automatically as required.
Wireless applications play a key role in in-creasing the efficiency of production processes. These include radio frequency ID (RFID) equipped material wagons in sheet metal production, which communicate with the central enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. This enables automated recording of transport and waiting times, allowing the current status of a production order to be continuously tracked. Location-based order tracking is another example. Here, component trolleys in the assembly line are equipped with labels for live positioning, enabling the component to be located and the assembly process tracked in real time. Deviations from plan are immediately identified.