The future of the Flemish manufacturing industry: designing, manufacturing and thinking differently.

Smart, connected products and systems, customisation at the cost of batch production and sustainable, operator-supported production: these are three distinct trends that will mark the future of the manufacturing industry. Flemish and European companies are preparing themselves for a new way of creating, producing and thinking. Flanders Make supports them in this transition process with customised innovation, research and infrastructure. An interview with CEO Dirk Torfs and CTO Lieven De Meyer.

Dirk Torfs: “We talk about sustainable industrial production whenever a company develops research-based high-quality products and manufactures them in an efficient production process at an acceptable cost. Another important criterion is that the company uses its knowledge to adapt the product or production process whenever needed.” It is exactly in these areas that Flanders Make aims to support and strengthen companies. It does this among others by investing in research and infrastructure that is close to the industrial context so that companies can begin to understand the added value and potential of our research, which – in turn – can be the start of an interesting interaction process.  Gearing to the industrial needs is deeply rooted in Flanders Make’s DNA.

Since about one year, Flanders Make is organised in four competence clusters. Their task? Putting our strategy into practice and bringing it in line with the needs of companies, taking into account three distinct trends in the manufacturing industry. “First of all, there is a trend towards smart products and production systems. Secondly, the production of customised products at the cost of batch production and, finally, the trend towards sustainable operator-supported production”, explains Dirk. “These trends are visible on the longer term and therefore our roadmap doesn’t cover one but ten years. We examine which logical steps a company can take to be ready for connected products and the complete digitisation of its production within five or ten years. Within our clusters, we build knowledge that we use to help companies to conceive and manufacture better, smarter and connected products in an efficient and rapid production process.”

Intelligent products, cleverly assembled

No single competence cluster works on its own, they all work closely together. To start with: the cluster Motion Products focuses on the ‘product’ segment. Lieven De Meyer explains:

“Our focus here is on improving machines and vehicles. Using our intelligence, we want to make them as smart and connected as possible. To this purpose, we define validated architectures, for instance to make machines and vehicles both more efficient and adaptive by storing kinetic energy in a magnetic spring that, at a later time, can be re-led into the system in a smart way. We always consider functionalities for tomorrow as well so that we can already integrate them today. For instance, machines will soon be connected and adapt themselves to changing conditions. All this requires a very different approach for designing, testing and validating the intelligence of a machine or vehicle.”

In line with the Motion Products cluster, we also have our Flexible Assembly cluster, which studies the way in which companies will in future manufacture these products in a smart way. “Our ultimate goal is enabling customised production at the cost of batch production”, says Lieven. He refers to the fact that a production environment must ever more often be able to create individual variants. “In future, a product line will barely exist. Every product will be conceived in a customised way”, continues Dirk. “Infrastructure should not only be able to make your product but also my product, which may be something completely different. For this, we need other assembly solutions, which we conceive and study in this cluster. In 2019, Flanders Make started with the construction of new infrastructure for this cluster in Kortrijk, integrating technologies such as robotics, automation, virtual and augmented reality, etc. We aim to create flexibility so that the production environment of a company can switch from one product to another without each time having to reconvert the entire installation or, if this cannot be avoided, with a reconversion that can be executed very quickly.”

Anticipating the needs of the market

Both clusters are closely linked to one another.

Dirk Torfs

“A company that already in the design phase of its product thinks about future new features – also for needs not yet known at that time – and conceives a production system that is able to make these currently still unknown product at an economically correct cost and using the right technology will tomorrow be able to anticipate very rapidly the needs of and changes in the market. And – upon such request – to manufacture a great many varieties of these products.”

Dirk Torfs

In this process, Flanders Make considers the entire life cycle of a product, including its assembly and disassembly (dismantling). “We make sure that a product can not only be manufactured but can be maintained in a good condition as well and we take into account the circular aspect”, says Lieven. “Furthermore, we want to enable companies to evolve along with the needs of their customers by using the same assembly and disassembly technique. In this way, they are able – together with the customer – to make adjustments or updates, digitally or physically, during the life span of the product. As such, product and production knowledge will be combined in an excellent customer service.”

The concept of ‘digital twins’, i.e. the creation of a digital copy of a physical product or production process, comes in very handy in this context. Dirk again: “Thanks to such digital twin, we can validate, test and lead the product through the entire production process in advance so that companies can already adapt a design decision before the actual design of this product has been completed. This digital twin of the physical reality is always synchronised with the physical product and can also be developed for a production process. It allows companies to considerably shorten the time-to-market of an innovation. One of the techniques used for this is augmented reality.”

Managing design complexity

Because in this context the design process doesn’t get any easier, we also set up the Design & Optimisation cluster, which helps companies to manage this increased design complexity.

Lieven De Meyer

“In future, we will use all available data to improve the digital twins. It concerns a huge amount of information about how customers actually use a product, what goes on during the production process, how the product behaves, etc. We want to use this knowledge to capture all solutions generated by a company into design models.”

Lieven De Meyer

This will enable designers to control the complexity of a design and focus on generating these specific products and production processes of the future. This means that the knowledge built in this cluster can be used in the above-described clusters so that they can complement one another.

Finally, within the Decision & Control cluster, Flanders Make wants to help companies to develop smarter systems thanks to the application of system intelligence. “If a machine is sufficiently intelligent, operators can be offered maximum support and less simple human interventions will be needed, adding value to the system”, concludes Dirk. “Thanks to artificial intelligence, we can make progress in this regard more rapidly than ever. As a result, systems will be able to anticipate events. In case of a connected system, this may even lead to a system intervention in one car after another car on the road has had a particular problem.”