Automation: Challenges and opportunities for machine manufacturers

  • Automation
For many machine manufacturers, automation is a real challenge. Most of them have focused on the hardware for a long time – even though the software is playing a more and more important role. The component software, which is at the center of automation, is highly complex: All modules must slot together and be compatible and at the same time be future-proof and scalable so that they can adjust to plans for growth. In addition, single-source solutions are preferred, but the resulting relationship should not become too close – and turn into dependence. There are many different solutions from different manufacturers on the market – how can you keep the overview and take the right decision?

We have interviewed Christian Gabriel, head of General Automation at KEBA Industrial Automation GmbH, about the pain points experienced by machine manufacturers with regard to automation; what the Kemro X automation platform is all about and how it is different from solutions from other providers. Straight talk from KEBA.

What are the current challenges facing machine manufacturers?

Gabriel: For years, machine manufacturers have relied on their hardware to stand out from the competition. But today, the major potential is in the software. The software structures that have grown organically over time don’t hold up in the face of modern requirements. They are often monolithic and based on old operating systems.

In my opinion, the big challenges in machine engineering include the reduction of system engineering and the creation of modular structures. PLCs are frequently involved, which makes it important to think of the big picture and consider upstream and downstream processes.

For this reason, KEBA has been using the Linux platform for over ten years. We use structures and options that are familiar from IT and modify and adapt them in such a way that they can be used for industrial purposes. We are refining IT tools, so to speak.

Christan Gabriel, Vize President Automation
Christan Gabriel, Vize President Automation

And what are the real pain points for machine manufacturers?

Gabriel: I can think of a few. Resources, for example. Many machine manufacturers have an outdated system architecture that has been maintained by one single developer for years. Continuing to develop such a software is difficult because only one person has the required know-how.

Today there is a focus on a modular approach and re-usability. Young engineers are not interested in maintaining and continuing 30-year-old codes. They want to introduce new technologies and new tools, such as free libraries. It helps to create a modular structure to allow a better distribution of resources (think: continuous integration, continuous development).

Machine manufacturers are also experiencing staff shortages regarding qualified personnel who know how to operate machinery. Machine operation must be as simple as possible so that anyone can learn it. For this reason, emphasis must be placed on an adequate user experience and UI design.

Another pain point is time-to-market: Product life cycles are becoming shorter and shorter. New features are expected on a continuous basis, and not every seven years as in the past.

This increases the share of system engineering, but the desire for full compatibility remains. Under this aspect, too, a flexible system architecture is highly important. It allows the quick roll-out of new features without disrupting or reducing productivity.

Using the Linux platform and KEBA connectivity developments enables us to deliver out-of-the-box products which help machine manufacturers get their solutions on the market quickly. And even for those applications that were programmed by the machine manufacturers themselves and that do not have any abstraction layers, standardization will provide significantly improved solutions in the future.

What does Kemro X stand for?

Gabriel: Kemro X is a complete automation system – an end-to-end system for hardware and software. All mobile and stationary panels, drives and hardware types as well as the engineering tool are built into it. The overall structure is modular, and the modules can be used like apps on a smartphone. These can be KEBA modules or standard modules from the Linux world as well as customer-specific modules.

Because Kemro X is Linux-based and open, customers can easily integrate their own software modules as well as third-party software. This allows them to protect their know-how and remain independent. Our open system architecture makes it possible to use a variety of systems while hiding this fact from the user.

What was the original idea behind Kemro X?

Gabriel: At the core of Kemro X, there is an open software platform. The idea for this open platform, which is embodied in one of our apps today, did arise in part from one of our own pain points. In the past, KEBA used a variety of engineering tools and at some point, the maintenance effort was getting bigger and bigger. With the passage of time and a growing product portfolio, our customers started to put pressure on us to unify the KEBA systems, which were closed systems at the time.

Step by step, KEBA then created a flexible system architecture based on the open Linux platform, which supported the inter-process communication we were looking for. Now our customers reap the benefit. In Kemro X, they get a system that can easily connect a highly diverse range of elements, from robotics to control engineering to operation terminals etc.

What does Kemro X cover today?

Gabriel: Over the years, we have developed a large array of software units, or KEBA apps, if you like. It’s a modular system that can be used for any automation machine manufacturer's wish to implement.

From engineering tools to simulation tools: Control engineering, mobile and stationary operation panels, HMI framework, drives, safety, motors, I/O units – in short, everything a machine needs for moving towards the “Smart Factory” – is already available and is being constantly developed.

There are several providers of automation platforms on the market. What sets KEBA apart from the competition?

Gabriel: KEBA is active in a broad range of sectors and industries and has developed and implemented innovative features for prominent customers, which has given us real depth and breadth of experience in many areas.

These custom-developed, industry-specific technologies can be subsequently developed further and used or offered across a broader spectrum.

The advantage: Our solutions have been able to mature over more than 30 years and have been running on Linux as series products for our customers for more than 10 years already. The know-how obtained in one specific industry becomes part of the solution for general applications.

Looking toward the future – how will Kemro X develop over the next five years?

Gabriel: One of our goals for this time frame is to make our software modules hardware-independent. There are also some specific features that we want to develop in greater technological depth to be able to provide a greater number of out-of-the-box solutions for example for AGVs (automated guided vehicles) or AS/RS (automated storage and retrieval systems).

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