How KIT researchers automatically dismantle electric motors and why remanufacturing is more important than ever in industry.
Re-what? The concept and its current significance
Remanufacturing is a process for refurbishing used products to bring them up to the quality standard of new products and make them suitable for reuse. Currently, remanufacturing is not considered particularly important in Germany, and factories for it are mainly found in Eastern Europe. "In terms of products, remanufacturing mainly concerns valuable products with a long service life, such as winches or large engines. The process of dismantling and analyzing such products is complex and expensive. The logical consequence: companies go where manual labor is cheap, to Eastern Europe," explains Sina Peukert, senior engineer for global production strategies at the wbk Institute for Production Technology. The high labor costs in particular are currently leading to the outsourcing of such processes due to the hardly established automation in Germany. In addition, a lack of legislation, not only in Germany but in general, also prevents more widespread use of remanufacturing. "There are too few regulations that require the reuse of old parts in production. All in all, there are hardly any incentives for German industry to engage in remanufacturing," Peukert continues.
Demonstrator Factory at KIT
The AgiProbot project aims to change this view of remanufacturing in Germany. KIT researchers are setting up a demonstrator factory at the wbk with the aim of demonstrating the feasibility of automated, full-scale remanufacturing. The goal is to create an agile production system that can dynamically respond to constantly changing conditions and uncertain product specifications by means of artificial intelligence. "In a remanufacturing factory, used products come back in an unknown condition at an unknown time and in an unknown quantity. It is a challenge to connect and automate so many uncertain parameters. In the project, we meet these challenges with intelligent measurement technology, agile production control and enabling robots to learn from humans," describes Constantin Hofmann, postdoc at wbk. The researchers have been working intensively on the implementation over the past three years.
The result to date is a collection of different stations that demonstrate the automated disassembly of a starter motor. The resulting demonstrator factory is divided into four different stations: There is a diagnostic station for inspection processes that are as autonomous as possible, a manual disassembly station where employees disassemble previously unknown products, an autonomous learning robot station where products are disassembled as automatically as possible, and a modular automated station. In addition, a driverless transport system was developed to meet the necessary flexibility of the flow of goods.
On the way to automation
The stations currently serve individual research questions. The researchers have set them up in such a way that networking is possible and desired. "Our focus was primarily on the respective topics and the development of the individual stations. We are on a very good path and the processes are meshing more and more seamlessly. In the next few months, we will now focus on linking. We hope to be able to start the first fully automated disassembly in the near future," says Hofmann.
Hofmann describes the next steps in the project. In addition to networking, the researchers are also currently working on knowledge transfer. "We are collecting countless valuable pieces of information at the stations. Methodologically, we know how to proceed and when. A big challenge is to describe these processes in a way that everyone understands. We therefore create not only 3D models, but also information models," Hofmann continues. With these models, the team wants to solve the dependency on experts and present information as transparently as possible so that it can be used by automated systems without contextual knowledge.
Need for action in the German industry
The researchers are aware that the major challenges do not lie only in setting up and implementing such a demonstrator factory on a large scale, but also in rethinking their approach. "Our research is very future-driven. Thinking now about the circular economy and scenarios 15 to 20 years from now is something few people do, because there are simply more pressing issues on the agenda. However, we can already point out the need for action today and, with our demonstrator factory, arouse interest and provide an impetus for a sustainable circular economy in German industry," explains Peukert. The AgiProbot project also demonstrates the potential for keeping the value chain within the country in the future. "German industry invests an enormous amount of time, manpower, material and energy in the production of countless products. Integrating end-of-life parts into production without outsourcing the processes can bring not only ecological but also economic benefits and mean securing our industry for the future, both economically and in terms of location," says Peukert.
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