“Millions can be saved by optimising the operation of industrial equipment”

Software algorithms to support the maintenance planning of machine tools and industrial robots, developed by GPK's engineers as part of an international consortium.

”We undertook to develop a very specialised, complex and multifunctional software, which requires extensive cooperation between industry representatives and university researchers”, said István Németh, associate professor of the Department of Manufacturing Science and Engineering at BME's Faculty of Mechanical Engineering (GPK) explaining the tasks, set by the successful entry to „PROGRAMS” (Prognostics based Reliability Analysis for Maintenance Scheduling), the EU's Horizon 2020 research and innovation framework programme. He added: 13 industrial companies as well as universities and research institutes from Italy, Spain, Greece, Germany and Hungary, participate in the three-year R&D project, among them BME's Faculty of Mechanical Engineering as one of the consortium members.

”Our department is responsible for developing most of the algorithms of a computer software for the modelling and prediction of the failure and degradation processes of production equipment (mostly machine tools and robots). One of the modules of this new software will make possible the planning and scheduling of maintenance activities in factories. What is more, such maintenance scheduling is carried out in cooperation with the classic production scheduling. Another software module will help to calculate the remaining useful life of critical machine tool components (e.g. ball screws, linear guideways, spindle bearings)”, said GPK's expert describing the goals of the research. The computer programme, developed by the researchers of the Department of Manufacturing Science and Engineering, will optimise the maintenance of production equipment; the aim is to minimise the costs while ensuring the best possible availability of the machines. ”We try to integrate maintenance and production scheduling, which results in considerable cost-saving in factories using our software, while also optimising work scheduling and shift allocation for the operators”, said István Németh listing the benefits. He said that two demonstration environments had been set up at two of the consortium members to test their methodologies in practice. ”We fitted sensors (accelerometers and thermometers) onto the machine tools of a Spanish company, which provide data on the load conditions of the machines. In addition, data from the machine controllers (e.g. current consumption of motors, speed) are continuously stored for subsequent processing. Information obtained in this way will be used for determining the optimal maintenance strategies and preventive maintenance schedules. The other demonstration environment was set up at the plant of a Greek partner: data provided by cameras, built onto welding robots, were processed to monitor degradation.” István Németh explained that they were developing statistical methods for the analysis of the data collected and the elaboration of analytical and simulation methods in order to model the degradation processes by using the output of the statistical analyses and predict the failure and maintenance events. These then can be used to calculate the life cycle costs and availability of the machines.

”Our Department at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering has been involved in designing and operating various manufacturing equipment for almost 70 years. During the past years we were involved in several EU research projects (MECOMAT, NEXT, COPERNICO, EASE-R3) which addressed the problems of the reliability and maintainability of machines. The results of this latest project can be used for maintenance planning in factories operating manufacturing equipment (e.g. machine tools, industrial robots, material-handling equipment)”, said the manager of the BME group about the prospective outcome.

According to their plans, the algorithms to be developed by BME's researchers as well as the additional software modules to be developed by the other consortium partners (e.g. data input module, results viewer module, diagnostics module) will run on a web server and they will be accessible from smart devices (mobile phones, tablets, etc.). This means that the databases, as well as the maintenance planning algorithms will be easily accessible from anywhere (inside, but also outside the plants). Just as is the case with the social media, operators and systems engineers can enter the malfunctions or maintenance events through a user-friendly interface; they can also add comments or share their entries, thus helping future users. Consortium partners focus on providing data in an unambiguous way and this is fully supported by the developed data acquisition and data recording methods and software tools. In this manner the failure and maintenance events can be recorded in a well-defined way, making predictions – based on such data – more precise and reliable.

The three-year EU project is currently at its halfway point and, according to the midterm report by István Németh, the experts of the Department of Manufacturing Science and Engineering have so far successfully completed the formerly proposed tasks. The first prototype of the computer software will be ready within a couple of months. In the meantime, BME's researchers are working on the demonstration case studies for the industrial partners. Their goal is to develop by the end of the third year a maintenance support web application and software package which can be marketed and also used in factories. Consortium partners of the cross-border research project are in contact with each other at all times, the industrial partners regularly provide data for fine-tuning the software and also report on experiences of the test runs.

István Németh works together with young researchers and students for the success of the project, and he also aims to incorporate new scientific results into university course materials as soon as possible, providing in this manner up-to-date knowledge for the future generation of engineers in the field of maintenance planning. The research project can serve as a basis for many publications, PhD theses, bachelor's and master's theses, while also generating considerable income for the Department of Manufacturing Science and Engineering: financing the employment of new young researchers, wage supplements, IT hardware and software and conference participation. According to István Németh, the unique software which is being developed is a real challenge for experts. Its success will enhance the reputation of the department and the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering within the profession and add to BME's international fame.

Photo: János Philip