From the Machine to the Data: the Industry 4.0 Laboratory

We had the opportunity to visit the I4.0 Lab, created and developed by the Manufacturing Group of the School of Management from Politecnico di Milano. It is an excellent place to carry out training activities, promote technology transfer and take part in national or international research projects. Starting from the development of machines, such as the modular and flexible system that simulates the assembly of a smartphone and whose technological and educational core lays in its traceability and advanced monitoring system.

by Fabrizio Dalle Nogare

Preventing the future. Indeed, anticipating it. By studying, testing, transmitting information and making several professionals working together, searching for mutual enrichment. All this in compliance with the current interconnected and digitized industry.
The I4.0 Lab, created and developed by the Manufacturing Group of the School of Management (SoM) from Politecnico di Milano is located within the Bovisa campus (see box at page 71). The lab, led by Professor Marco Taisch, allows either students or companies that collaborate in research projects to carry out activities in an industrial-like environment, dealing with several aspects related to manufacturing systems: from the role of operators and decision-makers to the traceability and monitoring operations of both plants and products.

Training the protagonists of change
“Industry 4.0 implies a major change, which concerns the role of those who work on the machine, but also the engineers and those who are supposed to take decisions within companies”, says Professor Giacomo Tavola from the Department of Management, Economics and Industrial Engineering of Politecnico di Milano. “We want that especially those who enter today the world of work may be the bearer of change which is also – or above all – cultural and deals with professionals. In fact, within the laboratory we test the benefits of multidisciplinarity”. In short, the pattern according to which engineers and mechanical or electrical designers are the professionals who mainly deal with production machines is outdated. “Let’s just think of the industrial engineers – whose goal is to improve the overall process rather than the individual stations -, or the experts in IT and automation, or even the data scientists. The latter were once required in sectors such as banking or insurance, but today they are increasingly crucial within factories. In fact, knowing how to read and analyze information coming from production systems is becoming essential”. These words were said by Laura Cattaneo, Post-doc, researcher at the Manufacturing Group and specialized in data analysis thanks to a degree in Mathematical Engineering.

An open laboratory
The activities carried out by the I4.0 Lab range from training – then Master’s or PhD theses, lectures in Master’s degree courses or specific training activities for companies or associations – to national and European research projects, up to the crucial technology transfer activities towards companies, always talking about innovative solutions falling under the umbrella of Industry 4.0.
“The SoM Manufacturing Group is a reference point for companies of different sizes who want to understand which innovation opportunities are best suited to them, offering either readiness or assessment services about Industry 4.0”, explains Elisa Negri, Post-doc and also researcher of the Manufacturing Group with a degree in Industrial Engineering. “We do support either smaller companies, which need to understand what is their position within the Industry 4.0 paradigm, or even structured companies willing to mark a paradigm shift in their production cycle”.
In addition, the research group actively participates in the Smart Factory Cluster, at both regional and national levels, collaborates with the Digital Innovation Hub for business support and participates in the European initiatives aimed at harmonizing the industrial policies of the main European countries with a view to factory digitization.

A flexible and reconfigurable system
The I4.0 Lab it is the executive branch of such a strategy, a place where – thanks also to the collaboration with some of the leading manufacturing companies – it is possible to test quite a lot of concrete and innovative solutions. And what’s more concrete than a smartphone assembly system?
“Starting from our specifications, in terms of both hardware and software, we have developed together with Festo Didactic a compact and completely modular system, which complies with all the safety standards, precisely because it is designed for teaching”, says Professor Tavola. “The assembly line is made up of six stations – five automatic and one manual – separated one another, so that users can change the system configuration, remove parts, replace them or add some other elements. In short, we wanted to build a highly reconfigurable and open system, either physically or in terms of communication protocols”.
The machine – which also features a six-axis robot with automatic gripper changeover and a control station with a vision system – has in its monitoring and traceability potential the technological core. In fact, both information and data on the evolution of the production process are conveyed to the MES, as well as data closely related to the product. The latter, in particular, is uniquely identified: a fundamental issue for obtaining the so-called digital twin, the virtual twin able to represent the object in all its main characteristics.

The four key concepts
What are the key concepts that guided the construction of the machine? “First of all, the possibility of carrying out automated operations – continues Professor Giacomo Tavola -, both simple and robotized with flexible automation. The second point concerns data visibility and the continuous production monitoring through physical devices (PLC, sensors, etc.) and suitable software. The third characteristic is to cover not only those aspects closely related to automation and process management, but also to process sustainability, then the issue of energy consumption, from electricity to compressed air. Finally, the presence of supervisors which may implement flexible processes able to easily emulate even complex industrial companies”.
Due to the machine open structure – which is essential when it comes to research and education – the objects of experimentation do not end here. For instance, in order to support operators on board the machine, but also maintenance specialists, augmented reality functions were implemented. Furthermore, in collaboration with Vodafone, the possibility of new generation connectivity with the 5G network is being tested, with the aim of overcoming the current limits of Wi-Fi connections.
But these are other, fascinating stories, which we will report in other, possibly fascinating episodes.