Enormous potential: Siemens is a participant in the “Collaborative Embedded Systems” research project, which is charting a future in which machines will react flexibly to their environment – and cooperate with it. It would be a milestone – in particular for industry and the energy supply sector.
The Siemens Electronics Works in the Bavarian city of Amberg is recognized as a showcase for digital production. Simatic controls for industrial systems are manufactured there in an almost completely automated production process. Barcodes constantly inform the machines which components are being processed and which production step is needed next. Around 12 million Simatic products are manufactured in this way every year.
But the future doesn’t stand still. Computer scientists and mechanical engineering experts have long been working on an expanded vision in which factories are not only digitalized and mostly automated but are also capable of acting flexibly. The plan calls for production facilities with integrated processors – known as embedded systems – to be enabled to react intelligently to unforeseen changes, without disturbing the production process.
The potential is vast. Well over 90 percent of today’s processors work not in computers but as embedded systems in various machines.
And it affects more than just factories. As part of the Collaborative Embedded Systems (CrESt) future-oriented project supported by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research, a consortium has been working on embedded systems in transport, in factories, and in energy generation since 2017 with the aim of enabling these systems – partly with the help of simulations – to intelligently and rapidly adapt to new situations. The potential is vast. Well over 90 percent of today’s processors work not in computers but as embedded systems in various machines and pieces of equipment – from factories to cameras, medical equipment vehicles, and telecommunications networks.
The partners in the CrESt initiative are correspondingly diverse. They include twelve research organizations such as the Technical University of Munich and the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and eleven companies such as Siemens, Bosch, and FEV – the experts for vehicle technologies. “With the help of innovative system architectures, we create the foundations for future embedded systems that can react more flexibly – all the way to autonomy,” says Lothar Borrmann, an informatics expert at Siemens and the industry spokesman of the CrESt steering committee. “The aim for factories is that the machines will act more autonomously when a new production order is received, a component fails, or new machines are integrated into the system.”
Embedded systems such as those in factories should learn how to deal with changing conditions. This means that they have to not only know their own objectives but also be aware of their surroundings and of the actions of other machines there. Of course they can also connect to these other machines. This brings the entire system into the researchers’ field of view – along with the question of how it can be optimized. For example, autonomous vehicles on the road could connect with each other in the future in order to enable a smooth flow of traffic. This is another use case being studied as part of CrESt.
The aim of intelligent action also applies to a mobile robot from the Berlin-based company InSystems Automation, which handed out brochures at CEBIT in Hanover – and kept an eye on where in the hall it had already distributed flyers to the visitors. Transferred to a factory, such robots could enable a flexible flow of materials between warehouses, machines, workstations, and dispatch. “Of course we are always thinking about safety throughout the process – because we have to guarantee that the machines’ increasing autonomy and constant adaptation does not give rise to any dangers,” says the information scientist Birthe Böhm, who works on CrESt at Siemens Corporate Technology.
As well as safety, Siemens also contributes security to the CrESt project: the security of the energy supply. The future supply of power will depend less on central power plants and more on a network of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. As a result, it requires power grids that can react flexibly to power demand and consumers that can intelligently orient themselves to the available supply. For example, if there is an excess supply, the surplus power could automatically flow into energy storage systems or the batteries of electric vehicles, and so reduce the burden on the grid. “This will only work,” says Borrmann, “when the systems, in a factory or in transport, for example, cooperate with each other. System architectures like those we are developing within CrESt will help us achieve this goal.”
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