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Leading-edge cluster “it's OWL”

Artificial Intelligence, Digital Platforms and Work 4.0

The it’s OWL technology network is launching new projects in December 2018, with companies and research institutions developing approaches to artificial intelligence, digital platforms, digital twinning and the working world of the future. Small and medium-sized enterprises can work together with a research institution to solve the specific challenges of digital transformation as part of transfer projects.

How will digital transformation change the world of SMEs? How can we use new technologies to improve products, production processes and working conditions? How can we tap new business potential? These are just some of the questions affecting companies in the production industry. In Ostwestfalen-Lippe, leading-edge cluster it’s OWL (short for Intelligent Technical Systems OstWestfalenLippe) is helping to develop solutions to these issues. More than 200 companies, research institutions and organisations are involved in the technology network. Named a “leading-edge cluster” by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, it’s OWL is one of the biggest initiatives for “Industrie 4.0” in SMEs and has established itself over the past five years as a driving force for competitiveness in Ostwestfalen-Lippe’s production industry. During the coming funding phase from 2018, a total of no less than 100 million euros will be invested in projects. The state of NRW is providing 50 million euros of funding and at least the same amount will come from industry.

Intelligent Technical Systems
The mechanical engineering systems of the future will reply on interaction between mechanic, electronics, control technology, software technology and new materials, and demonstrate inherent intelligence going beyond mechatronics. Information technology and non-technical disciplines such as cognitive science, neurobiology or linguistics provide a wide range of methods, technologies and processes that enable sensor, actuator and cognitive functions previously only found in biological systems to be integrated into technical systems.

These are called intelligent technical systems. They are adaptive, proactive and user-friendly. Intelligent technical systems adapt to their environment and their users’ wishes. They offer benefits for households, production, trade and on the street, save resources, and are reliable and intuitive to use. Examples include a tumble dryer that adapts to changing electricity prices in a matter of seconds and still provides a top result thanks to self-optimisation, a production machine that is easy for operators to use even on difficult tasks and knows when it requires maintenance, or a large laundry system that automatically washes, dries, irons and folds every item of laundry using minimal water, energy and detergent.

The spectrum ranges from intelligent sensors, drives and automation components to machines, domestic appliances and vehicles to networked systems such as production facilities, smart grids and cash management systems, covered by the term cyber-physical systems. These high-tech products and production processes are not ends in themselves, but instead provide their users with concrete benefits in terms of operation, reliability, security, cost efficiency and saving resources.

Optimising processes by intelligently networking agricultural machinery. © Claas

Solutions for “Industrie 4.0” in SMEs
From 2012 to 2017, 47 projects were undertaken as part of the leading-edge cluster with the support of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Companies and research institutions developed solutions allowing companies to improve the reliability, resource efficiency and user-friendliness of their devices, machinery and systems.

The global leaders in automation technology thus developed new solutions for the production of the future. These range from intelligent control and operation to data analytics, continuous data sharing and machine learning to collaborative robotics.

DMG MORI designed intelligent machine tools and Kannegiesser created a resource-efficient self-optimising large laundry system. Self-service terminals from Diebold Nixdorf were equipped with an intelligent operating interface. Claas furthered networking and environment recognition in agricultural machinery. Hella developed intelligent headlamps and improved the range of electric cars. The Heinz Nixdorf Institute was involved in numerous projects.

The foundation for these were basic technologies which universities and research institutions used to make the findings of top research available to companies. They covered the fields of self-optimisation, human-machine interaction, intelligent networking, energy efficiency and systems engineering. The interdisciplinary self-optimisation project was coordinated by the Heinz Nixdorf Institute, which was also involved in the field of human-machine interaction.

Some participants, particularly SMEs, benefited from an innovative transfer concept: they were able to solve specific operational issues and take their first steps along the path to “Industrie 4.0” across 171 transfer projects. Feedback was excellent: 74 of companies were satisfied with the implementation of the project, and 60 percent said that they had taken a significant step forward.

Program structure

Driving Force for Developing Ostwestfalen-Lippe as a Location
it’s OWL provides a powerful boost to the competitiveness of Ostwestfalen-Lippe’s production industry. Companies have created around 7,500 new jobs since the leading-edge cluster was established in 2012.

34 companies have been founded in the field of flexible production, including the maintenance platform Werkbliq and verlinked GmbH, which provides machine communication solutions. Solihde develops individual solutions for business process optimisation, and Assembly Solutions designs tailor-maid assistance systems for assembly and maintenance.

Seven research institutes have been created, including the Fraunhofer Institute for Mechatronic Systems Design IEM (Paderborn) and the Fraunhofer IOSB INA Industrial Automation branch (Lemgo). In addition, six universities have created 23 new practical courses incorporating business – including many dual and on-the-job programmes – resulting in the number of STEM students increasing by 48 percent.

New Challenges
The technological environment and customer requirements have changed since it’s OWL was launched, presenting companies with new challenges. Machinery and systems must be able to complete increasingly complex tasks independently. The level of networking in machinery and systems is growing, also increasing the demands of machine and system operation. Interactions between humans and machines are becoming increasingly complex, and business models and the performance of the entire market are changing. As well as machinery and systems, companies must also offer services such as those arising from data processing.

In order to assert their technology leadership and be competitive, companies must therefore increase the intelligence of their products and production processes and tap new potential benefits. To do so, the technology network is tackling new technological fields such as machine intelligence, socio-technical system design, digital infrastructure, safety & security, value creation networks and advanced systems engineering. Basic technologies, sample solutions and software libraries are being developed in these areas and made available to companies via an innovation platform. This is based on innovation projects undertaken by companies and research institutions to develop solutions for the challenges set (autonomy, dynamic networking, socio-technical interaction and product-service interlinking).

Machine Learning, Platforms and Digital Twinning
The first four innovation projects are launching on 1 December 2018. One topic being covered is machine learning in production. The aim of the project is to enable machinery and systems not just to react to programmed samples, but also to learn from their experiences, allowing them to improve their performance during their operating time and automatically adapt to changing conditions. The companies Benteler, Hanning, KEB, Lenze, Miele and Weidmüller are working with four research institutions to develop new methods and make them available to other companies on a platform. Machine learning will considerably increase the productivity and efficiency of production. Machine downtime and waste will be avoided and the use of energy and materials significantly reduced.

Two other projects incorporating nine companies and four research institutions are exploiting the potential of digital platforms for small and medium-sized enterprises. The background for this is the fact that the proportion of digital business in mechanical engineering is steadily growing. Companies are increasingly having to interlink their products with services in order to remain competitive and retain access to customers. Digital platforms enable them to provide customers with an integrated solution, from receipt of order to production to logistics.

Another project focuses on the development, use and interaction of digital twins. These are a digital illustration of a machine, linking up the real and virtual world. Mapping in a virtual environment uses data provided by sources such as sensors. Digital twins can be used to depict machines and systems throughout their entire life cycle: for example, digital simulations can be used when planning a new system in order to optimise real processes.

Supporting SMEs through Digital Change
Another focal point is technology transfer for SMEs. Within transfer projects, SMEs can work with a university or research institution to use new technologies from the leading-edge cluster to solve the specific challenges of digital transformation. Transfer projects provide quick and easy access to new technologies and the latest research knowledge. The effects can be seen directly in operations, allowing SMEs to take key steps on the path to “Industrie 4.0”.

Transfer projects play a key role in the digitalisation of processes, products and services. These include intelligent networking and self-optimisation of machines and systems, IT security, human-machine interface design, efficient energy management and new business models. Small companies (up to 50 employees) can receive funding for up to 80 percent of the total costs of a transfer project, and medium-sized companies (up to 249 employees) up to 60 percent.

New Business Concepts and Promoting Start-ups
Digital transformation is changing markets and business models, providing start-ups with excellent opportunities to capture new markets and establish themselves. Ostwestfalen-Lippe and the technology network are the perfect environment for this, as unlike other German start-up regions, company founders here have direct access to potential customers in industry.

Collaborations within the cluster and its projects have produced new approaches for intelligent production procedures and smart services. 30 new business ideas are expected to have been identified and developed into successful business concepts with help of companies and universities by 2022. These include disrupt workshops organised by academics, students and cluster companies. New participation models are being developed for start-ups. 

Company founders receive comprehensive support from cluster partners when developing their business concepts. For example, the OWL innovation laboratory run by the state’s four universities offers qualification and consulting services. Incubators like garage33 in Paderborn, the innovation centre at Campus Bielefield, knOWLedgeCube at Campus Lemgo, the Founders Foundation, and Denkwerk Herford offer numerous programmes and coworking spaces. The OWL Technology Fund and OWL Business Angels provide access to growth capital. The “Startup Region_OWL” initiative links up company founders and other key players in Ostwestfalen-Lippe.

Work 4.0 – Optimising Working Conditions and Supporting Employees

Information and communication technologies are changing production and development work. Algorithms help with decision making. Assistance systems help employees with the setup, maintenance and assembly of machinery and facilities. Virtual prototypes can be tested in real production environments, and digital systems increase product reliability, promote customer loyalty and minimise waste production.

The social aspects of workplace design particularly come to the fore in a digitalised factory, with humans remaining at the centre of technology. To design the workplaces of the future, companies must use new technologies to adapt to specific areas of application and actively incorporate and train employees as part of the process.

Companies, universities and trade unions within the technology network develop new solutions for digitalising the working world. A lead project begins in December looking at learning platforms, cognitive assistance systems, participative technology architecture, agile management and HR development. For example, Weidmüller is researching how augmented and virtual reality can be employed in professional training to enable personalised learning, whilst Benteler and Claas are developing a joint learning platform. The results and experiences are being made accessible to companies within the cluster, in particular SMEs.