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One for All

Potsdam business informatics specialist designs a model factory

Pict: Karla Fritze
Photo :
Pict: Karla Fritze

A conveyor belt, four tunnel-shaped boxes with touch displays and screens, a robot arm, several sensors, a scanner, antennas, cabling and a small metal box with displays all around. This is LUPO, not a compact car made in Wolfsburg, but a prototype of a plant for the “Productivity Evaluation of Autonomous Production Objects”. Basically this is a factory: a chocolate factory, a factory for artificial joints or for tires or anything imaginable. The business informatics specialist Prof. Norbert Gronau and his team designed a so-called demonstrator that can simulate any number of production processes. It is a project funded by the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology.

"LUPO offers a glimpse into the factory of the future,” says Gronau. “It will be extremely versatile and to a large extent marked by technical innovations, especially in IT. Therefore we as business informatics specialists want to answer the question: Which new technology is suitable for factory applications, for whom and when? What turns out to be profitable and what not?”

To address this question for as many technological innovations as possible and to examine it with practicality in mind, the team has combined the advantages of computer-based simulation with those of a model factory. This means that all those production parts already known and analyzed are simplified in models and then simulated with computer programs. “For this we have designed these two cubes – our workpiece and our machine center demonstrator,” Gronau explains, pointing to two metal boxes. While the “workpiece” is a loose container the size of a shoebox, the virtual machine forms a tunnel into which the workpiece can be inserted via a conveyor belt. Displays surround both. In the course of the simulated production process you can see on them what they “are” and which steps of the process are happening, because “you can upload different programs for both so that they behave like individual workpieces and machines.” On the top side is a display that the scientists can use to intervene in the process and change parameters. It is possible to simulate big factories with many different machines and workpieces thanks to the roller conveyor that transports the workpiece cube from one machine center demonstrator to the next and thanks to shortcuts, branches, and loops. Gronau explains the work as based on the “principle of maximum flexibility. This plant is unique in Germany,” he says not without pride. Since all cubes can be newly programmed, it is theoretically possible to design any factory layout. 

Why did the scientists not simulate the entire factory in the computer? “Because the decisive new aspect – about which we currently have little knowledge and want to find out a lot – is the interaction between machines, especially between machine and workpiece,” Gronau explains. “Existing models of this type of communication do not meet this complexity,” says the business informatics specialist. “They often fail to consider new technologies under development whose application we want to test in practical processes.” The LUPO makers connected the individual machine cubes by a roller conveyor for practical trials. This allows them to integrate different technical innovations simultaneously into the existing production process. By using scanners and movement sensors the machines can act more independently. This would result in fewer breaks and interruptions in the production process. The icing on the cake of autonomous production is an intelligent workpiece, the scientist explains, able to communicate with the machine itself. “Simple communication technologies like the barcode scanner have been used for a long time,” Gronau says, “but an interaction between the machine and the workpiece is still not existent.” RFID technology, radiofrequency identification, makes this possible. Sensors, machines in this case, read out information from chips attached to the workpieces. If the chips contain specifications on how to continue processing the workpiece, the machine “knows” what to do without a human starting the production step. Gronau describes the resulting magic formula for the factory of the future as, “less external and more self-organization”. However, he does not see it as the universal solution on the path towards fully automated production plants but as a way to enable machines to solve malfunctions themselves.

LUPO cannot only calculate and simulate advantages for practice but can also demonstrate them. Gregor Hennig is one of the 12 project team members and is the “manager in chief” of a factory for artificial hip and knee joints whose production is being simulated with LUPO. He quickly makes final adjustments to demonstrate an accelerated manufacturing version to the hurried visitor. In this staged production line the intelligent and the “ordinary” workpiece have to compete. While the machine negotiates with the intelligent workpiece using RFID technology and then starts further processing, the ordinary workpiece always needs a worker for this process. You can even automate quality control with the help of the RFID chips because a machine compares the finished product with the specifications on the chip. In this case, Hennig removes the finished prosthesis; it’s defective. Based on the data of real production, the team has also programmed the rate of wear, error, and failure into the production process to model it as realistically as possible.

In fact, there are production lines from different industry partners behind the simulations that have been developed so far. Among these partners gained at the beginning of the project was OHST Medizintechnik AG in Rathenow, a manufacturer of prostheses. Design and programming of the model factory are based on an inspection of the existing manufacturing plant. Only after recording the production processes as accurately as possible and transferring it into computer models, can you complement it with new technologies and test their effect. “The basic application idea of LUPO is as follows,” says Gronau. “If a factory director comes to us on a Monday and wants to know whether a certain technology is profitable for his factory, we will model it and can give him an answer on Friday.” 

Meanwhile word has got round that such a model factory can test very practically whether these expensive technologies deliver what they promise and are applicable for a certain type of production. This is mainly due to the clearness of the model factory, as Gronau stresses: “We want to show how versatile factories and their processes are. People from the companies can hardly believe that at first, but are surprised when they are here and we demonstrate to them what is possible.” Initially there were two project partners but today there are already 15, and follow-up applications have been made for the research project.

But first and foremost Gronau is a scientist and his motivation is research. At the beginning of the project he had the wish “to make it possible to test the theoretical principle of versatility,” he explains. “The system of the factory is very suitable for testing this concept.” Students from the University of Potsdam also benefit from the innovative spirit that inspired LUPO. Since 2010 about 500 BA students of business studies and business informatics have “worked” in the LUPO factory during a LUPO teaching week every year. They are full of enthusiasm, as Gronau says. “The students get tours of the factory in small groups and get acquainted with the basic features of the production processes. For many of them it is a completely new field. I always ask who had ever been to a factory. There are never more than three – out of 500! They are all the more enthusiastic after having worked with LUPO.”


In September 2013 Anwendungszentrum Industrie 4.0, an Industry 4.0 application center, was founded as a key result of the LUPO project, its application and continuation. Companies have the opportunity to use the simulation environment to analyze their processes, test their own components and train their staff. In addition, this creates a network of industry (users, manufactures of machines and sensors, software producers) and scientists by having an active exchange regarding the latest developments in the field Industry 4.0. Industry 4.0 melds the real and virtual worlds. Machines decide autonomously, devices communicate independently. Plants and tools can be adjusted to changing product and production requirements within a very short time. The goal is an intelligent factory (Smart Factory). Industry 4.0 provides numerous technologies and conceptions, for example the extended communication with OPCUA, AutoID solutions, smart sensors and decentralized production management by using cyber physical systems.


Prof. Norbert Gronau studied mechanical engineering and business administration at the Technischen Universität Berlin. Since April 2004 he has been a full professor at the University of Potsdam. His research interests are Operational Knowledge Management and Versatile ERP-Systems, enterprise resource planning systems.


Universität Potsdam
Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliche Fakultät
August-Bebel-Str. 89, 14482 Potsdam


LUPO (Leistungsfähigkeitsbeurteilung unabhängiger Produktionsobjekte) Productivity Evaluation of Autonomous Production Objects 
Head: Prof. Norbert Gronau 
Funding: Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Technology (BMWi)
Project period: 2010–2013

Text: Matthias Zimmermann, Online-Editing: Julia Schwaibold, Translation: Susanne Voigt