How to Keep Old Machines Going

EU project uses smart factories and closed loop strategies to extend the life of machines

Can European manufacturing improve its productivity and competitiveness by adopting digital solutions and transitioning to closed loop strategies? This is the question being tackled by a consortium of researchers and industrial partners from nine countries, including Harms & Wende and Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum, as part of the EU-funded project RECLAIM. Their aim is to use digital analytics (DA), the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and circular economy strategies to compensate for aging industrial plants and strengthen the economy and environment. Digitally retrofitting old machines should minimize equipment failure and unplanned downtime.

Experts agree that the competitiveness of the manufacturing sector revolves around the ability of companies to prepare themselves for – and survive – changes in the market. This means that companies need to introduce mechanical and digital tools that allow them to avoid machine downtime and shutdowns due to aging machinery. The manufacturing sector should be able to cope with continually changing batch sizes. It also needs to find appropriate and profitable ways to accelerate innovation cycles. Factories capable of forecasting production schedules properly and providing operators with multiple options for monitoring and controlling systems will also be able to adapt production lines to market requirements.

“By 2025, 15% of all material used in the European economy should be reused. RECLAIM will provide strategies and decision-making tools that accelerate the development and deployment of digital technologies in manufacturing” outlines project coordinator Michael Peschl of Harms & Wende GmbH & Co. KG, one of five pilot factories where the project is being implemented. “This is especially important for ageing equipment that often require time-consuming manual data crunching and analysis to gain any real performance and maintenance insights.”Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum has been tasked with ensuring that the findings of the project are put to good us, working up application and commercialization strategies with the consortium, and looking for synergies with relevant national and European projects and initiatives.

Carbon footprints: a key driver of competition

Ageing of manufacturing machines and operational processes, as well as factory infrastructure (cranes, tanks, mobile or storage platforms and any other relevant tools), is one of the most critical factors of the production chain efficiency.“ Ageing influences how well similar companies can compete on the market,“ say Nieves Murillo, a project manager at Tecnalia, a Spanish research and technology center and partner of the RECLAIM project. According to Murillo, obsolescence is another issue, which is even worse than ageing. This happens when well- functioning machines need to be replaced anyhow because they cannot be used within modern digital production lines as a result of lack of interoperability between industrial computers and human interfaces This drives up costs and puts a strain on the environment. “So far, the impact of ageing machinery on waste generation and carbon footprint has not been studied thoroughly but it is becoming increasingly important. When raw materials, manpower and energy resources are not used efficiently, more waste is produced and higher costs are incurred,” says Murillo. “Sustainability is also a key factor in competitiveness. Sustainable industrial processes and waste management are fundamental for ensuring a high environmental protection, which is increasingly perceived as an important aspect in a company performance rating,” adds Rosaria Rossini of the Italian Links Foundation, also a research partner in the RECLAIM project.

Digital tools for industry

Two key factors when it comes to avoiding machine downtime are prediction and prevention. Both require effective tools for maintaining and upgrading machines. “IoT and Smart Factories, together with circular economy, are the pillars for the long-term prosperity of companies,” says Murillo.

Predictive and preventative machine maintenance strategy requires a deep understanding of the data. “IoT devices provide the data from the machines while digital analytics allows us to make sense of it,” says Rossini. IoT and Data Analytics support the circular economy paradigm through the automated detection of scrap material levels, which helps to improve management and create new business optimization strategies. Applying predictive control on the machines helps to improve their maintenance and performance.

By drawing on DA technology, the RECLAIM project will result in the development of a decision support framework for the ageing machines, which are approaching the end of their ‘designed time’. These machines typically break down more often, which leads to loss and delays in production. To provide a framework, analysis and decision-making strategies are being developed. These will be used to assess the “health” of equipment and provide guidance on how to extend the machinery’s lifetime.

Another solution developed within the project revolves around the use of digital twins for error diagnosis purposes and predictive maintenance. Not only do twins make it possible to replicate factory environments digitally, they also allow the performance and status of machinery to be monitored and predicted. Operators can be given direct access to all functions required to plan machine overrides or predict potential outages. The tool is highly adaptable and scalable, and it can be adjusted to other specialist fields. The infrastructure has now been developed for the project, and currently more attention is being given to dedicated AI algorithms and simulation environments for pilot applications.

One strength of the RECLAIM system is that it combines smart IoT sensors with industrial computers, control units, algorithms, models, and digital twins. This sophisticated infrastructure can generate module-based solutions that can be adapted to the specific requirements of industrial machines and offer non-intrusive mechanisms for monitoring plant functions.

Applications for numerous sectors of industry

The companies participating in the RECLAIM consortium are working on the development and implementation of new tools in five pilot areas. The consortium coordinator, Harms & Wende, is conducting tests on applications in welding. Other sectors of industry include timber processing (Switzerland), textiles (Turkey), robots (Slovenia), white goods (Czech Republic) and shoe production (Spain).

Developing an ultra-flexible architecture based on interchangeable system components for use in welding production – and combining this with remote diagnostics and predictive software – will make it possible to supply customers with made-to-measure machines and services. The companies producing shoes and white goods are being introduced to IoT sensors capable of monitoring the smooth functioning of machines using non-intrusive technology. The sensors they are using can help reduce the carbon footprint of end products. The producers of household textiles are being given access to machine-learning models in combination with machine sensors to help them optimize bleached products offered in traditional ranges and thus improve the sustainability and environmental friendliness of the textile industry. A further example shows how companies can digitally retrofit aging wooden furniture production: The RECLAIM project allows them to combine applications based on edge computing, data analytics, soft sensors, and AI models.

RECLAIM is initially focusing on five sectors of industry, but the findings will be transferable to many other areas. For example, there are several similarities between the production equipment used in textile bleaching, wood pulp production, and robot cells, and the different kinds of machinery used in the automotive industry. Other sectors that place emphasis on robustness and environmentally friendly production will also be able to use digital solutions to achieve important goals. In addition, several key industries such as textiles have shifted production abroad to countries offering low manufacturing costs. Introducing smart technology to real-life production set-ups could enhance the competitiveness of textile factories across the EU and restore the important role they play in the European economy.

The project partners expect the first round of applications to be on the market within a couple of years. “We expect that, based on some of the RECLAIM tools, factories could make their decisions 30% faster through adopting the best recovery strategy,” says Murillo. “Another important outcome will be automated and digital production lines and machines, with a projected 20% drop in shutdowns due to failing machine components. Furthermore, more time and money will be saved, and machines will last for longer and be more efficient. The machinery effectiveness will increase by 90%, with the consequent reduction in CO2-emissions.

RECLAIM is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement #869884, from Oct 2019 – Mar 2023. Participating countries: Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom. Original article in the RECLAIM website


Maëva Pratlong (author)
Project manager for resource efficiency and circular economy
Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum (Stuttgart/Karlsruhe)

Anette Mack (author)
Senior Manager, Public Relations
Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum (Stuttgart/Karlsruhe)

Eva Kopf (author)
Project Consultant
Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum (Stuttgart/Karlsruhe)

Daria Kulemetieva (author)
Project Manager ESCI (Oldenburg)

Stefano Valentino (author)
Journalist, Founder MobileReporter (Belgium)