On 1 December, the company moves to the Brainport Industries Campus.
It is the Factory of the Future: Someone orders a lawnmower via the Internet, then this order ends up at the factory where various robotic arms produce, assemble and prepare the new lawnmower for shipment part by part. All automatically and if necessary, in the middle of the night. “Anyone who owns a crystal ball can tell us when the time is there because there’s still a lot of development to be done,” Eddie Mennen says. Mennen is Managing Director of Yaskawa Benelux. A Japanese company with offices all over the world, the company was originally a motion control system developer and is now active in various sectors. Yaskawa also develops robots and software systems for production processes. Soon – 1 December – the company will move to the Brainport Industries Campus.
Mennen does not like the vague terms he often hears about ‘Industry 4.0’ or ‘Smart Industry’. “People often say abstract things, but on the factory floor, I only see little concrete steps”, he says firmly. He prefers to explain this in simpler terms: “Compare it to an office where everyone can easily connect different devices such as computers and printers and work together with different programmes. Data can be edited and easily shared with colleagues. This is not yet possible in factories. Industrial robots or other production machines often have their own system that cannot handle information and files from the system of the other device. We want to change that,” he explains.
But that change is coming, Mennen confirms. “The time for manufacturers producing products in large numbers through one line won’t exist much longer. That shift has been going on for a long time, partly because more and more items are ordered via the Internet. Production processes focus increasingly on consumer demand. Production lines should, therefore, be flexible, so machines can easily switch between different products.”
Yaskawa is currently working with various partners in the fieldlab Flexible Manufacturing on production systems that can process different products fully automatically. “Together with a sheet processing company in Oisterwijk, we are working on a system that can automate the handling of metal sheets from order to finished product. Online orders go directly to a laser machine that automatically cuts the right quantity and metal into the right shape,” says Mennen. According to him, the challenge lies in the fact that these sheets must then be bent into 3D shapes: “Currently, this is still done by hand, but we are now working on a robotic system that can pick up these sheets and bend them into the right shape. We are testing and further developing this last step which will bring us one step closer to 24/7-factories.”
At the Brainport Industries Campus, Yaskawa also participates in the fieldlab Advanced Manufacturing Logistics where – together with partners such as KMWE – it is developing a self-propelled robotic vehicle with a robotic arm to change tools in computer-controlled machines automatically. “These robots work together with people to support employees. Robots will never replace employees. But the work that people do will change in the future. That is why we must continue to stimulate them by learning. Robots may make fewer mistakes, but a robot doesn’t do anything of its own accord, it’s all thought up by humans.”
In addition to developing robots for the industry, Yaskawa is also working on exoskeletons to support people with disabilities. Mennen: “The world population is changing; the number of elderly people is increasing. I think it’s great to see that these techniques also are used for these kinds of good things. Exoskeletons are still very expensive, but by investing now, they become more accessible in the future.” Mennen begins to tell enthusiastically about another technology that Yaskawa developed to generate energy with cranes. “We have developed a system that can use the crane’s load as a generator, which allows you to feed energy back into the grid. That’s the beauty of this work. You work something out on paper, put it together and test it. If it then works, it’s very satisfying. It’s a very creative process.”