Mission: possible

Emkon provides a peek into tomorrow’s factory.

By Stefanie Rossel

Making the life of operators easier by making the machinery smarter has been a longtime goal of Emkon, a German machinery manufacturer focusing on customized flexible packaging solutions. Under the slogan “Touch the future,” the company presented several innovations in operating and control concepts at its in-house exhibition in November. “The internet of things”—the networking of physical devices—featured prominently during the event.

The centerpiece of the exhibition was Emkon’s new “smart glass” operating panel. Installed on the company’s bundler, Strike, the display covered much of the machine, allowing the operator a comprehensive overview of production processes.

The setup brought to mind scenes from the movie Mission: Impossible, with Tom Cruise manipulating information on a futuristic screen. But instead of presenting classified information crucial to the star’s survival, Emkon’s smart glass enables the operator to check and adjust machine settings so as to optimize performance.

When an error occurs, the glass will turn dark except for a light spot highlighting the problem area. Instead of having to run to a central operating panel, the operator can stay near the machine. His work is further facilitated by the screen’s ability to display the machine’s circuit layout, along with instructional videos on how to fix issues.

The screen can also be used to document format changes and integrate shift schedules. And, since not everyone has Tom Cruise’s stature, the images are automatically presented at a height that is convenient for the operator on duty.

“We had the idea to make intelligent use of the machine’s protective housing because, until then, displays on equipment were never where we would have needed them,” explains Andreas Dittrich, co-founder and managing director of Emkon.

The company is currently fine-tuning its innovation, which is expected to be ready for serial production in May. In the future, all data on the screen will also be transferred to mobile devices. The company is working to mirror the information on the smart glass so that the operator can also see it on the inside after he has opened the machine cover. Emkon also wants to produce 3-D training videos, covering everything from troubleshooting to the construction of a complete machine. A virtual-reality headset will then guide operators through the moves they must make to service the machine.


Intelligence inside

Emkon’s goal is to develop a self-learning machine, with a view to overall equipment effectiveness. To achieve this, the company is working with artificial neural networks. As part of the learning process, Emkon’s apprentices have designed a cocktail-making robot.

The company has also developed technology that allows its machinery to make adjustments in response to environmental conditions such as ambient temperature, humidity and vibration. Emkon’s Flexbag, the company’s first fully modular, in-line stand-up pouch maker (see Tobacco Reporter May 2016) is already equipped with such technology. For example, by processing data from cutting-edge sensors, the machine can detect a bobbin that is operating at a temperature unfavorable to optimal performance. Once the problem has been identified, the machine informs the operator and provides concrete suggestions on how to optimize the process. In the future, a self-learning machine should be able to carry out such adjustments itself.

According to Dittrich, the combination of smart glass, artificial neural networks and sensors with modular machinery will enable a new flexibility of production planning in all industries.

In this brave new world, however, several questions remain, one of them being data security. “Our first step will be to create a local experience of the new technology, as we do with this exhibition,” explains Dittrich. “The technology will then be rolled out within a client’s factory. As a third step, we will establish a point-to-point connection between the customer’s site and Emkon. We are currently experimenting with JavaScript.” Another aspect not yet clarified, he adds, is standardization.

Emkon’s latest developments also reflect the changes the company has undergone since it started in 2000. “Today, machinery construction is only the basis of what we are doing; it’s a means to an end for us to learn,” Dittrich points out. “We are focusing on industry 4.0, i.e., on automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. Now that the basic technologies are there, we can translate our visions into reality.”

The company’s staff has changed accordingly—Emkon has hired experts for artificial neural networks and is negotiating with software companies.

Dittrich sees a lot of potential for his company’ services. In the tobacco industry, individualized products will gain at the expense of mass-produced ones, he predicts. “And why not make the most efficient use of the two? For plain packaging of cigarettes, for example, one universal blank for all markets could be produced on a high-speed machine. Afterwards mid-speed machinery adds country-specific features—for example, brand labels, price changes and languages—to packs and/or foils. Proven Emkon labeling technology, such as the Emkon Multipack, is even capable of applying the tax label. And finally, one may add market-specific characteristics via in-line printing to the cigarette pack. As advantages, the raw material won’t age because of quicker turnover, and savings in material will be up to double digits.”