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Interview with Balluff engineers

The interview with Balluff industry managers was conducted by Magda Jurek, who is responsible for marketing communications and digital sales in our company. Solutions and trends in automation are discussed by Daniel Oszczęda (machine and plans engineering), Marek Kowalski (mobility) and Paweł Juras (food and beverage packaging).


Magda Jurek: I would like to talk to you first about what mega trends you are seeing in your industries.

  • Marek Kowalski: In mobility, the biggest trend we are currently participating in is electromobility, i.e. increasing the share of electric motors in newly manufactured vehicles.

I drive a hybrid car myself.

  • Marek Kowalski: So you’re a good example. According to forecasts, in the next ten years, 15-18% of vehicles will be electric vehicles and over 50% will be hybrid vehicles. This means the need for energy and therefore the construction of new infrastructure.

Another trend I would like to mention is autonomous driving versus connected mobility. It means vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-service and infrastructure-to-service communication. What does that entail? With the increased amount of data we have to transfer and process,

it is also impossible not to notice how important shared services, or popular car sharing, are nowadays. It is quite present in urban agglomerations. And if you look at those directions, everything is related to an increased demand for energy – not just infrastructure, transmission, but also generation, which Daniel can probably tell you more about.

  • Daniel Oszczęda: That’s right. As Marek mentioned – e-mobility, or more and more electric cars, is a big challenge. If we look at how many cars are on the road right now and get to the numbers showing the percentage of electric vehicles, we see that we are not generating enough energy today.

Energy in general or healthy energy?

  • Daniel Oszczęda: Energy in general. We are currently unable to meet the demand for it, nor do we have the infrastructure to transmit it. You own an electric car yourself, so you know the power consumption it generates. You can’t plug it into a regular outlet, especially if we’re talking about fast chargers.

Nonetheless, the choice of electric cars is strongly correlated with the environment…

  • Daniel Oszczęda: We know what our climate is like, so the trend is to get energy, from renewable sources using windmills or photovoltaic panels. Balluff has for many years been involved in the broader engineering industry, which is now very much geared towards change. E-mobility, the switch from internal combustion engines to electric motors, means a huge challenge for manufacturers. They need to retool from manufacturing, machining heavy blocks of large engines to completely different materials and manufacturing electric motors. Big challenges await companies in the areas of mobility, logistics and transport. Resource management is also an important trend. As you may have noticed while passing motorway junctions, new logistics centres are growing like mushrooms after the rain. All sorts of materials and products are delivered there.
  • Paweł Juras: At this point, it is necessary to mention logistics, which is a very large area that functions in the entire food production ecosystem. And outline what these trends and directions are, what they are based on, what defines them and why they are so important in terms of thinking about the future.

The population is projected to reach about 9 billion by 2050. As of today, it is about 8.7 billion and according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, food production will have to increase by about 70% to meet the expectations and demand in this area. At the same time, there will be pressure to reduce emissions, wisely manage resources, raw materials and reduce waste and losses. And this is also a trend, present in all industries.

To all of this, one would have to add a change in lifestyle. We live faster and faster, we travel more and more, we want convenience, but we are also more conscious consumers. This defines the next steps necessary to be implemented by, for example, food manufacturers, such as convenience food. By the way, all these elements will affect food manufacturers, from processing and production to packaging processes. In the latter case, we will talk about the search for new materials for food storage and packaging that can be reused.

Thanks for the detailed introduction. I would like to know what these mega trends mean for our region.

  • Marek Kowalski: First of all, investments. In mobility, new cars. If we look at the map of Central and Eastern Europe, we have Audi in Hungary, Skoda Mladá Boleslav in the south, and Volkswagen Poznań or PSA further north. All these companies have decided to expand their portfolio with electric cars. We can’t forget about perhaps the most media-savvy investment in Europe that Elon Musk is responsible for – the Gigafactory near Berlin, aka Tesla.

Electric cars are associated with suppliers and sub-suppliers of component parts, for example batteries. Again, if we look at it geographically, on the one hand we have the huge LG Chem plant near Wrocław, which is still being expanded, and on the other hand – SDI in Hungary or SK Innovation. In addition, the Czech Energy Group has announced plans to build a Gigafactory in the Czech Republic, and Slovakia’s InoBat has also come up with a similar initiative.

We are also a very significant region in Europe in terms of the amount of other components produced. Seats, mirrors, tyres, windscreen wipers, belts – all of these will be associated with investments in new models. This will require building new lines or upgrading existing ones. With a flexible factory, of course, it will be easy to refit them. But the new models will be an opportunity for local machine manufacturers to grow and get orders from.

If we look back a few months to a situation where investments were stopped and postponed, such a perspective gives hope. Besides, machine manufacturers, having learned from the experience of the pandemic, are looking for new areas for themselves. They offer their knowledge and experience to customers in other industries – for example in the food industry.

  • Paweł Juras: Mobility is a prime example of how automation and robotics are enabling ever-increasing efficiencies. And I agree with Marek that the impact of mega trends on our region will certainly manifest itself in investments in modernisation. Especially in the food industry where the share of old machines, old equipment, old lines is very significant.

This may be due to the specific process of food production, while we can already see today that even in this specific peri-Covid time, many companies have taken the opportunity to make a very rapid investment in automation of certain areas in the absence of employees.

When it comes to the impact of trends on the region, it is necessary to mention the increase in expenditure on automation and robotisation, which in turn will translate into increased efficiency and performance of production and independence from manual handling. The human factor will still be very important, but no longer an operational issue in production. This will give you more stability and repeatability even in the event of crises.

Secondly, flexibility will be increased through modular machinery and process automation. And thirdly, we will notice a greater emphasis on product quality. In the case of food production, we are talking about its quality before and after packaging, i.e. markings: date, batch number, information about the composition of the product. OCR systems and vision solutions are certainly helpful in this aspect, as well as the verification of 1D, 2D codes or RFID labels, which are helpful in serialisation and traceability processes.

If, on the other hand, we talk about traceability, we think not so much about a single production plant, i.e. the production stages, but the entire supply chain, starting from the production of the raw material, delivery, processing, sending to warehouses and finally to the consumer. This is where the logistics come in once again.

  • Daniel Oszczęda: Logistics is also expanding based on changing consumer behaviour. E-commerce, online shopping, has accelerated tremendously in recent times. In Poland, we have Amazon investments in several places. These warehouses require a very large number of people to operate, and at a time when unemployment is at an all-time low, finding these workers, especially during seasonal peaks, is very difficult. This is why many processes in warehouses are being automated. For example, at Amazon’s logistics centre near Szczecin, all racks are driven by autonomous trucks.

Paweł mentioned food production. Nowadays, we are increasingly abandoning shopping in large shopping centres in favour of chains that are closer to us. They require frequent deliveries and order smaller batches of goods in containers. Barcodes are used when tracking products, and they have some limitations, so a large number of chains are testing RFID technology. If we shop at Decathlon, for example, every product is already marked with RFID technology.

We talked a little bit about mega trends. Tell me how Balluff fits in, what exactly does it implement in this area?

  • Paweł Juras: We support these areas with practical solutions that enable our partners to become more competitive step by step. In the context of food and beverage packaging, I would like to mention the demand for flexible production, format changes and quick changeovers. It’s called change part detection which is the management of the tools and tooling that is necessary to make a product in the right format. Consumer expectations are not always related to the optimisation of the production process itself because we would have to have one type of packaging on the shop shelf, and we know very well that we like to have a choice. Hence the solutions for changing the format.

How does it work in practice? One of the largest chocolate manufacturers in the world told us during the project consultation that it takes between 90-240 minutes to change the tooling and adapt the machine to the new format, depending on the competence of the staff. After implementing a dedicated solution, the changeover time was reduced to 30 minutes. It is a stable time, repeatable during the next changeover and includes setting all the points and configurations from the control level; that is, preparing the machine for production using a new format.

This makes it very easy to count the savings in money and time and see an increase in productivity. When it comes to technical solutions, we have a whole range of them, from the simplest sensors to vision solutions or RFID systems. It all depends on the type of machine and the format change system.

In terms of vision inspection, I would like to go back to product quality verification in the food and beverage packaging industry. As I mentioned earlier – in the case of food, it concerns the quality of the product before and after it is packaged – whether there is adequate information on the composition of the products, allergens or other factors which can be a very important determinant of whether the product can be put on the market. In addition, verification of best before dates, verification of codes, etc.

The date is one of the things that I personally would like to recognise someday, as Balluff’s contribution to the betterment of the consumer’s life. Finding the date is often a big problem, especially with bad print. For the consumer, this is a pretty significant issue.

  • Paweł Juras: This is definitely an important element to check before releasing a product.

And that’s the solution we have.

  • Paweł Juras: And it is worth mentioning that it is very intuitive, easy to use, can be implemented by practically anyone and is dedicated to very fast processes; for example, verification of a thousand pieces per hour.

Quality control is also the domain of the automotive industry.

  • Marek Kowalski: Definitely, and in this aspect food and the automotive industry are very close. Inspection is probably one of the most essential elements in the automotive industry, where at every stage of production we encounter the requirement to check whether the component is properly assembled, whether it has the right shapes, whether it is there at all. We are able to provide plenty of such applications and solutions and, most importantly, we also provide a complete solution. Complete means that in addition to the hardware side, in our engineering and application centre, where we have a vision lab, our colleagues are able to write an additional algorithm to support image analysis. And this is really a step forward, meeting the expectations of our business partners.

For example – one of the manufacturers of car rims asked us for an application. After the manufacturing process, you need to check that the plugs are removed before shipping to the end customer. It seems very simple – we can put a back light on the underside, a camera on top and add a standard algorithm. But if there are fifty or seventy types of rims it is a challenge. Our vision lab specialists offer additional software support.

  • Marek Kowalski: And if the recipient wishes to install, run and deliver data on a server, or simply to an RP system – we can do those things too. I’d like to mention another value we can offer beyond inspection – it’s the tracking of materials through every stage of manufacturing.

Let me return in this aspect to automotive and engine manufacturing. With full traceability in production, we are not only able to tell when a particular engine was made, but on what shift and with what tools. In addition, when an engine or part of an engine approaches the machining centre it notifies the machine controller of what is to be done. And this is Industry 4.0 in practice.

RFID, OCR and Data Matrix, which is becoming increasingly popular for tagging parts in the automotive industry – that’s one area we cover. From there, it’s not far to machine access control: employee tagging and RFID cards are already popular in almost every plant. We are able to link the information on the card to the machine control and offer access control.

Please tell us in two or three sentences how Balluff supports the industry with technology and, in fact, our everyday life.

  • Daniel Oszczęda: Industrial internet of things (IIoT) are buzzwords that we all come across. We offer many solutions that support digitalisation of production, support its efficiency and eliminate errors and mistakes. For many years we have been offering RFID systems to support digital tool management, for example in machining centres, where we eliminate paper documentation. The operator no longer has to manually fill in data on a piece of paper and then retype it on a keyboard. We replace this process with a digital transfer, which saves time and eliminates mistakes.

If we’re talking about tools, another area is injection moulding machines or presses that press parts out of steel – both dies and moulds in the plastics industry. They require regular maintenance to function properly. This is like our cars, which we have to service from time to time. The run of moulds or dies is measured by the number of cycles. And now in many companies this process is still done in analogue form, on paper, the so-called tool passport. We offer it in digital form. We call this solution the e-passport. We digitise the process, eliminating errors inherent in the human factor.

It is also worth noting that some robotisation and digitisation processes pay for themselves very quickly. One of our integrators recently reported a case where the use of vision systems paid for itself in three months. This is really a future direction for companies.

Paweł, you recently participated in a Tetra Pak webinar where you covered aspects of Industry 4.0. How does Balluff support areas such as condition monitoring?

  • Paweł Juras: Yes, I attended a webinar that covered the impact of Industry 4.0 on food and beverage manufacturers. I had the opportunity to listen to several professionals responsible for process quality, safety or food quality speak about the digitalisation of production facilities. According to Aleksander Bromarz, quality and food safety specialist at Tetra Pak, two technologies are crucial for them as a leader in the food and beverage industry. They concern sensorics and an automated system for data collection and analysis.

New sensor technologies provide a wealth of information about the production and product environment in a compact form. We are talking about temperature, humidity, pH level or vibration. These data, with the help of new technological solutions, are delivered to the control system – to the base, which collects and processes them using AI. This allows for predictive maintenance and following a predictive production strategy. And those are two key areas that fit into our approach in the condition monitoring area.

In the case of the food industry, condition monitoring translates into product quality due to conditions during production. It is not only about the condition of the machines, equipment and production line, but also about the quality of the product. If the temperature of the production process is compromised, it may not reach the warehouse and the consumer. This means losses, cleaning, line changeovers and a whole string of events. That is why it is so important to monitor – in this particular case, the temperature and parameters of devices that maintain this temperature: fans, blowers, power generating units. If we are talking about the devices themselves, their vibrations are the basis for determining their condition and taking predictive action.

We have examples from the broader beverage industry. Bottlers of juices, beverages, spirits, low- and high- alcohol beverages in the production process take into account a number of devices called pumps. In the processing of juices and vegetables, for example, these will be piston pumps, whose vibration and temperature is essential for the entire process. Monitoring these parameters is key to maintaining process stability and delivering a quality product.

  • Marek Kowalski: The drives area, the machine diagnostics that you mentioned, that’s one of the more important elements in the automotive industry as well. We strongly support the area of gathering information from machines and delivering it to decision makers.

In the automotive industry, suspension transport systems are very popular among car manufacturers. These are often extensive lines driven from several locations. By monitoring the drive gears, we are able to predict and identify initial belt or drive chain damage, and thus stop the line early enough. This is the prediction that Paweł was talking about.

At Balluff, we not only provide the hardware side, but also visualise the data and deliver them on a separate server with the appropriate IT infrastructure.

  • Daniel Oszczęda: Condition monitoring and predictive maintenance are very broad topics, making it possible to maintain flexibility and efficiency in production because they make it possible to eliminate failures in time rather than react post-factum.

One of the interesting case studies in the area of condition monitoring using our sensor was carried out at a furniture manufacturer. In addition to automotive production, our region is known for its woodworking and furniture production, an industry where there is a strong emphasis on the digitisation of many processes and increasing efficiency. On our client’s site, we have installed over a dozen sensors at critical points, where it takes half a day to replace a damaged electrical drive that is being monitored.

Such an interruption is a very real cost. That is why it is important to plan for it, to be ready for it. We can provide an end-to-end solution that gives you that capability.  But there are also clients who have their own systems for visualisation, data collection, analysis or management – SCADA systems. For them, we are able to match the data format to the system they have. Our client had his SCADA system in which he collected data from other devices. We provided him with an additional data source with vibration and temperature information. We are also able to provide a solution with software, in the cloud, on a server or one that sends information to the client’s software.

To sum up – Balluff is a producer of solutions in line with mega trends, technologically advanced and innovative. We invite you to follow our profiles on LinkedIn and Facebook under Balluff Polska. We also encourage you to contact us directly and to follow our private LinkedIn profiles where we publish information about the latest case studies and cases to which you can find analogies in your companies.

We are also available at our engineering and application centre in Wrocław, where a demonstration production line has been built under the aegis of the Ministry of Development, as part of the Level 4.0 project. More at Balluff and Level 4.0.