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„Networked manufacturing“

Niko sa: Flexible production of power sockets and light switches

Intelligent machines that control themselves are networked with the entire production line and supply all the data needed for comprehensive monitoring and custom analyses – this is what the future already looks like at nv Niko sa in Belgium. Since the beginning of 2018, a BM 6000 has been in use for manufacturing power sockets and a BM 4500 for the production of light switches. They allow flexible, efficient manufacturing in line with the principles of Industry 4.0 and provide the foundation for the company as it moves towards a smart factory.

It all started on the trip back from the Otto Bihler Maschinenfabrik to nv Niko sa in Belgium: Daniël Hofman was reading the best practices article about Feller AG in Horgen (CH) in the 2015 issue of b on top when he had the brilliant idea of using a Bihler BIMERIC BM 6000 servo production and assembly system for manufacturing his company’s own electrical switches. The specific issue here was once again to find a way of combining the metal and plastic components for the various switch models in a particularly efficient, precise and reliable way. Up to that point, the company had been using a Bihler BZ processing center and a number of RM 30, MC 42 and MC 82 machines. “For some time, we had been thinking about a replacement for these machines, which were beginning to show their age, and in particular about a new processing center. At the same time, we were extending our connector portfolio to include a push-fit model alongside the existing screwed version,” explains Daniël Hofman, Projects & Engineering Manager at nv Niko sa.

Rapid switch between variants

“We decided on a new BM 6000, because this system provides us with the flexibility we need to manufacture the variety of sockets at a consistently high quality, including ultra-precise manufacture and assembly of all the parts needed. It also ensures that we can rapidly switch between variants and integrates seamlessly into our existing manufacturing chain with ist varying assembly, logistics and packaging units.” The BM 6000 arrived at Niko at the beginning of 2018 and heralded a new era in the production of power sockets and light switches. These have always been a key element of Niko‘s portfolio – alongside more than 5000 other products for lighting control, access control and energy management that are marketed throughout Europe by the family-run company that dates back to 1919. Based in Saint-Niklaas, nv Niko sa is the market leader in Belgium and is part of the Niko Group, which has a workforce in excess of 700.

With fully networked manufacturing on the BM 6000, they have succeeded in achieving a further milestone in the company’s history: Dr. Goedele Heylen, Operations Director, Dainël Hofman, Manager Projects & Engineering (left) and François Servaes (Bihler),

Extremely intelligent, fully networked systems

The BM 6000 manufactures the sockets using the mixed mode principle. This allows two different variants of a component to be manufactured without retooling. In this way, Niko produces standard design sockets and splash-proof Hydro sockets at a rate of 70 units per minute and 250,000 units per week. The trick is that the machine decides autonomously when to manufacture which product. If, for instance, a malfunction occurs on the feed side or during assembly, the machine independently switches over to manufacturing the other product. Alongside the intelligence of the BM 6000, a further strength of the system is the ease with which it can be integrated in the surrounding production environment. In this case, it is networked with the proprietary downstreammachine for final assembly of the sockets. In this scenario, the downstream machine acts as the master and informs the BM 6000 of the total number of assemblies to be manufactured for each variant.

Daniël Hofman: “The combination of embedded intelligence and networking saves us valuable time and ensures that the machine effectively runs round the clock”. As a result, it is possible to manufacture urgent, short-run orders just in time at a high level of quality. Dr. Goedele Heylen, Operations Director, adds: “Communication and the fact that the machines are linked to one another are important prerequisites for smart production in the Industry 4.0 environment. And so, the next step we are planning is to connect our machines to our Materials Requirements Planning system, which will allow us to further optimize utilization and order processing on our machines.” And at Niko, smart production doesn’t end when the parts have been manufactured. The system informs the fully automated packaging unit when an order is complete and the parts can be shipped to the customer.

Custom interface for monitoring and analysis

Monitoring is another key factor in digitalization and smart production. And the BM 6000 offers virtually unlimited options in this respect, since all the machine’s data is in principle available to users. In close collaboration with Bihler, a new interface was created for Niko using the VC 1 controller and the OPC-UA data exchange standard. This captures all the relevant data and thus the overall performance of the BM 6000. This data is presented visually in the production hall itself using large flat panel displays. In the event of a malfunction, operators can use the displays to see at a glance the location in the machine at which a problem has arisen and immediately go to the right place to resolve the issue quickly. Other warnings, information and messages are also shown clearly in real time, for instance indicating the condition of a motor, the current quality status and the efficiency of the machine. Hofman: “The availability of all machine data was a key selection criterion for us. It allows the system to run successfully, but also forms the foundation for our future analyses. These comprise extremely detailed investigations of relevant individual machine  parameters that go beyond the functionality provided by the MES system and into the realms of predictive maintenance. This allows us to improve the performance and utilization of the machines even more in specific areas and further reduce downtimes.”

On the way to the smart factory with Bihler

The BM 4500 which also arrived at Niko at the beginning of 2018 offers the same prerequisites for Industry 4.0. It is used as a standalone machine to manufacture a variety of light switches and is characterized by extremely short tooling times of less than 20 minutes. Another highlight is the integrated camera inspection unit, which checks the weldedsilver contacts. Once again, this guarantees the very highest quality of the assembly comprising contact, cage and spring. François Servaes was the Bihler representative who took on the responsibility for coordination between Niko and Bihler and was involved throughout the almost 18-month process from planning, through ordering and right up to commissioning of the system. According to Servaes, “The greatest possible reliability in production is ensured by the maintenance contract between Niko and Bihler. If a problem arises on either of the two machines, it guarantees rapid, effective assistance in the shape of service and spare parts.”

Dr. Goedele Heylen and Daniël Hofman sum up: “The new machines put us in an ideal position to cope with the constantly growing range of variants and the increasing demand for short runs for immediate delivery. But they also make it easy for us to build entirely new products with integrated functionality, for instance for the smart home concept – and always in the same top quality. At the same time, the machines also allow us to reduce our indirect costs, for instance by saving on materials, and ultimately offer a single product at the price of a mass-produced part. The new machines therefore represent an important development in our manufacturing of sockets and light switches, while at the same time paving the way to the smart factory and to an approach to production that embraces the Industry 4.0 concept.”

Based in Saint-Niklaas, nv Niko sa is the market leader in Belgium and is part of the Niko Group, which has a workforce in excess of 700. Alongside power sockets and light switches more than 5000 other products for lighting control, access control and energy management that are marketed throughout Europe by the family-run company that dates back to 1919.



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