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Pulling the
digital lever

"Pulling the digital lever"

Continuous increases in production performance and efficiency are an important foundation for Interroll's success. What role does digitalization play in this? Armin Lindholm, Managing Director of the Global Center of Excellence Rollers & RollerDrive in Wermelskirchen, Germany, discusses automation, process digitalization, and the paperless factory.

What tasks does the Wermelskirchen, production site fulfill?

Lindholm: Among other things, we are responsible for the production of conveyor rollers and RollerDrive for customers in Europe. The central challenge is to fulfill a gigantic wealth of different customer requirements very quickly. Customers can now order our products in around 60,000 variants. This means that almost every product ordered differs from the others—for example in terms of size, performance, and design. At the same time, customers also place individual orders. Our manufacturing system is therefore capable of handling batch size one quickly and profitably. At our company, the average batch size is around 75 units per order. Producing to stock therefore makes no economic sense. For this reason, we manufacture exclusively "built-to-order" solutions (i.e., build only after an order has been received). This naturally means the highest demands on the flexibility and efficiency of our processes.

What are these processes based on?

Lindholm: Since 2006, we have been working according to the globally authoritative Interroll Production System IPS, which is based on Toyota's Japanese Kaizen principle. This enables us to achieve continuous and systematic optimization of our production as well as improvements in other areas of the company. In this way, we have succeeded over the years in drastically reducing waste, for example, in the more than 600,000 machine changeovers required each year to process orders. Today, we already achieve very short machine changeover times of just 80 seconds in our production lines. Such performance could only be improved with a great deal of additional effort and in small steps. At the same time, Interroll is pursuing ambitious growth targets, which means that we will have to increase capacity in Wermelskirchen over the next few years without significantly increasing the production area. So how can digital technologies help us to further increase productivity and capacity? Against the backdrop of the possibilities offered by a smart factory, we therefore asked ourselves where exactly we need to apply the digital lever in order to be able to increase our productivity and capacity as effectively as possible.

And where did you find it?

Lindholm: Our analysis has shown that we can currently leverage the greatest optimization potential in our plant by digitalizing processes as consistently as possible. That's why we digitalized the flow of information in the production area around the orders to be processed last year. For example, our production machines are now automatically retooled for the respective order. Corresponding information for the employees is visualized directly at the workstations via small screens. This has two important advantages: The elimination of order slips, kanban cards and other information on paper not only makes time-consuming processes superfluous, but also eliminates potential sources of error.

Does this mean that you are saying goodbye to Kaizen in the future?

Lindholm: No, on the contrary. Kaizen is a successful concept that works regardless of the technologies used and whose application never ends. Our strategy is to take the Interroll Integrated Production System (IPS) to the next level, in other words to implement an IPS 2.0, as it were. This means that it is not a matter of pursuing digitalization or automation for their own sake, but rather, for example, of bringing the proven principles of lean production and total quality management to bear even more effectively.

And what does the technical architecture of the increasingly digital Wermelskirchen production look like?

Lindholm: In order to make our processes digital across the board and achieve maximum flexibility, we rely on open standards for industrial connectivity. In this way, we ensure that we can continue to guarantee interoperability between production machines or other devices from different manufacturers in the future. The keyword here is OPC UA (i.e., the Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture) which has become established worldwide in the production sector and for future Industry 4.0 applications.

Why is the openness of this standard so important?

Lindholm: It is the basis for the networked use of further functions that are provided, for example, via our enterprise resource planning (ERP) system or our cloud applications. One example is the new web shop, where the entire process chain between ordering, order processing, production, shipping, and billing is digitalized. Here you can see that the digitalization of internal processes also adds direct value to the customer relationship. Another example is our automated test stands, on which every RollerDrive is tested before shipping, for example, and where a digital twin of the product is created that we can use for new and more convenient customer services, for example by means of big data applications.

Can your sister companies also benefit from the experience gained in the paperless production environment?

Lindholm: Of course. We don't keep our know-how as a competence center to ourselves, but make it available throughout the Group. And this is not just a matter of us in Wermelskirchen making our expertise available to the regional or local manufacturing companies in our own product group. At the strategic level, for example, regular management workshops ensure an intensive exchange of experience among those responsible for production. This is the second effect of our current initiative in the area of paperless manufacturing. Here, we are acting as a beacon project for the entire Group (i.e., also for colleagues who—as in the conveyor and sorter area—are more involved in project business).

What is the future of automation? Will humans continue to play an important role in manufacturing?

Lindholm: Yes, because not all production processes will be automated in the foreseeable future. That's not just for technical reasons, by the way. People are simply much more flexible than any machine. This fact is becoming increasingly important. After all, we are operating in an environment characterized by an ever-faster pace of innovation and shorter product life cycles. You need human flexibility if only because you can't change your entire production setup every few months in order to produce efficiently.