When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Or, to put it another way, they boost their automation expertise. That’s certainly the case for RAMPF Production Systems, a manufacturer of low-pressure mixing and dispensing systems based in Zimmern o.R. in Germany. For the first time, the company has designed a complete production line including 14 individual process and production steps with comprehensive process monitoring and data gathering using a relational database.

“We really looked outside the box for this project,” said Stefan Hampel, area sales manager at RAMPF Production Systems. The company, part of the international RAMPF Group, is usually responsible for the areas relating to dispensing technology as well as the upstream and downstream processes. However, a whole range of elements were factored into the equation when developing the turnkey system for assembling electronic devices. These included component handling, joining and riveting stations, HV testing, labeling, laser printing, and gathering of operational data.

The courage to automate

The customer’s desire for a complete production line was present at a very early stage. But the individual process steps necessary for this were not specified till during the project planning phase. The scope of the system, which was realised as usual by RAMPF Production Systems, had focused in the past primarily on the dispensing operations and the automation steps directly linked with this. “We tested the feasibility of significantly expanding automation of the production line for our company and rated it as feasible,” said Hampel. The courage to automate, so to speak.

A further milestone on the road to a fully integrated system solution involved linking process data to an MES/ERP system provided by the customer. “To provide a common database that would enable complete equipment traceability, connection to a relational database was planned for gathering the wide variety of production data subsequently needed by the customer for further processing and evaluation,” explained Wolfgang Ritter, who works in the software development department at RAMPF Production Systems. This was not prescribed at the outset, but instead was defined and developed in the course of the project planning phase. The control data is collected and stored in this data pool as part of the dispensing process and in all other production stages.

The highly automated and complex production line comprises 14 individual process and production steps with comprehensive process monitoring and data gathering. The wide range of production data is stored in a relational database.

Traceability ever more important

Customer-prepared data is retrieved by RAMPF Production Systems to control the production process. The database is used to check the production status of the core product, the PCB, at the request of the system. “This means the PCB needs to be adjusted and pass various preliminary tests before it is approved for further processing on the production line,” said Ritter. The PCB is identified by its serial number, which is determined using an image processing system.

The data for printing equipment labels is requested from the database using the PCB serial number. Appropriately prepared datasets are then fed back and used to control the labeling lasers. This involves completing plain text fields, including model, version, and production date, selecting labeling symbols, such as UL label and TÜV symbol, and laser printing the data matrix codes (QR code or ECC200). Depending on the model, various label templates are also preselected.

“The traceability of products is playing an ever more important role for our customers,” said Hampel. “Plant operators need to be able to monitor the status of their production operations to achieve optimum quality for their products.” But flexibility in product configuration is also becoming increasingly important, he explains, adding that this requires programs that can be used to produce product specifications for orders on a customer-specific basis. “Batches of one, for example, are possible based on the customer’s software configuration for the end product.”

A key step toward Industry 4.0

A basic concept for connecting to database-linked MES/ERP systems was developed as part of the successful implementation of this project. It will be possible to use this as a basis for building customized solutions in the future. “This concept is thus a key step for us in the move toward Industry 4.0,” says Bernd Faller, Managing Director of RAMPF Production Systems. “The successful implementation of the project has demonstrated that we are able to offer fully integrated system solutions for our customers’ production facilities.”

As a result, said Faller, process steps that are not directly related to the original core business of mixing and dispensing will be pursued even more actively on the market – in other words, the company will continue to think outside the box. “Our mixing and dispensing technology is being joined by other elements such as extended automation and conveying systems for internal logistics, additional assembly and joining technology, as well as logistic and quality assurance solutions,” he added. In his view, integrating testing and measuring technology into production facilities to safeguard production processes will increasingly also play a part in the company’s customer-specific solutions.

Whatever the outcome of the still hotly debated discussions on Industry 4.0, one thing is certain – companies will be focusing even more heavily on networking production processes and production sites in the future. And for RAMPF Production Systems, this implies expanding its corporate expertise.