The factories of the future will make significant demands, such as the ability to quickly adapt to production processes and to operate within tight spaces that result in high operating costs. Mixed reality can effectively support factory planning in just these scenarios. Using their HoloLayouts software, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA have developed an application where multiple people can interact interactively to create plant layouts that make efficient use of space. The factory planning process can be experienced in a virtual environment with changes made live and in real time.
Today, factories are often planned on computers. The disadvantage of this approach is that it is difficult to involve production workers in the process because the software usually needs to be operated by an expert. But input from the production staff is an essential part of creating the right layouts and spaces. Manufacturing processes are also evolving rapidly, requiring factory buildings to be converted and expanded. Battery manufacturing is a prominent example of an area where processes are changing rapidly due to innovations in products and manufacturing technologies. These challenges led Fraunhofer IPA researchers to develop a mixed reality (MR) plant planning application. HoloLayouts was created as part of the DigiBattPro4.0 – BMBF project (funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research BMBF), which aims to create a complete digital transformation in battery cell manufacturing.
“The areas used for battery production are expensive to operate due to the specific requirements for the processes, such as clean rooms and dry rooms. They are also usually quite sparse spaces. Manufacturing innovations require versatile flexible design options in the future. The factory of the future must be changeable,” says Christian Kaucher, researcher at Fraunhofer IPA. “With HoloLayouts, we address this need and enable space-efficient, flexible planning that enables layouts to quickly adapt to new product and manufacturing technologies.” Together with colleagues Günther Riexinger and Markus Sasalovici and with the help of the Unity development environment, Kaucher managed to exploit the main advantage of the mixed-reality tool: it allows several people to communicate with each other when planning a project. factory, something that is generally not possible with conventional computer-aided 3D planning tools. Unlike virtual reality (VR), there is no separation between the employees and the environment – apart from the virtual models, they can still see the real environment and interact with others involved in the planning process.
Fine tuning and validation of factories
This is made possible through a combination of the HoloLayouts software and the necessary hardware: Microsoft HoloLens 2. This mixed-reality headset projects the virtual planning environment directly into the user’s field of vision. Users can then pick up, move, slide, scale and position individual objects such as machines or workpieces, and a catalog is available for adding new objects. For example, distances between objects and corridor widths can also be adjusted. In thumbnail mode, users can start drawing from a variety of layout options and see an overview of the plan. The layouts are then displayed in their original size in 1:1 mode for field validation. “This makes it possible to identify planning errors at an early stage, as employees get a realistic picture of what the plan for the factory environment looks like,” says Kaucher, pointing to the advantages of the two view options. Employees can also work as a team in both modes and collaborate on layouts. A shared session can be started to add multiple users, either in the same room (Co-Located mode) or multiple locations (Remote mode). The Co-Located mode shows the model to all participants in the exact same place in the room, making it easier for them to discuss specific aspects of the layout. Thanks to the application’s intuitive design, even employees without MR experience can participate in the planning process.
HoloLayouts have already been used at the Center for Digitized Battery Cell Manufacturing (ZDB) to plan an assembly line for 21,700 lithium-ion battery cells. Battery cell production consists of making electrode strips, assembling the cells using electrodes and other components, and finishing the cells. A production line was set up at Fraunhofer IPA to assemble the cells, the second of these steps. “We were able to use HoloLayouts to do this, which allowed us to create and test layouts that used the limited space very efficiently,” Kaucher said.