Flexible and Transparent Processes in Our Increasingly Digital World

Digitalization is transforming industry. It is changing processes and business models, and it is requiring some companies to seek completely new strategies: in their daily work, in their contact with customers and above all in product development. For Schmalz, a specialist in vacuum automation, digitalization presents opportunities and challenges in equal measure. A quick glance in the product catalog shows how the company is already taking advantage of these many opportunities. Many of the solutions for networked factories have been in use for years. Schmalz therefore benefits from its “domain knowledge,” or knowledge relating to practical applications. The company also has plenty of ideas for new business models.

Smart field devices with their own Schmalz service app can be parameterized quickly and easily from a mobile device.
Walter Dunkmann, head of the Vacuum Automation business area, J. Schmalz GmbH
The SICON product brand offers a platform-independent box that serves as a gateway for process and application data. The Gateway connects IO-Link devices from different manufacturers with the fieldbus and the larger data landscape – plug and play without no work required.

“For us, the term ‘digitalization’ is not our absolute focus. Rather, it is much more about what our customers hope to get from digitalization – and, accordingly, what they expect from us as a manufacturer of gripping systems and components,” says Walter Dunkmann, head of the Vacuum Automation business area at Schmalz. “We are in constant communication with our customers and recognize that the fundamental challenge is to make production processes more flexible and transparent, in both new and existing sectors and branches of industry.”

Example from the automotive industry: E-mobility requires a fundamental rethink by the automotive supply industry as well. “As a manufacturer of gripping systems, the obvious challenge for us is to provide flexible end effectors that can deal with the mix of drives used at present on the one hand and hybrid and electric motors on the other,” says Walter Dunkmann. That mix means that the complexity involved in controlling and monitoring these end effectors is significantly higher. To conquer these challenges, Schmalz takes advantage of its decades of experience and knowledge about a particular application. The company brought vacuum generators using IO-Link as a communication interface to market as early as 2008. The vacuum generators are visible in all fieldbuses and be parameterized via IO-Link as needed. Those solutions are now well established – particularly in the automotive industry, but also in many other sectors – because they deliver tangible and measurable added value for customers in process monitoring and control. For example, functions for energy and process control enable resource-efficient use of components and preventive maintenance of gripping systems. Over the past few years, Schmalz has successively expanded its range of intelligent vacuum components, known as smart field devices. They now offer a wide range of intelligent mechatronic components and system assemblies – from individual vacuum generators to vacuum terminals with multiple blocked ejectors, to intelligent needle grippers.

“Only with these intelligent systems can we conquer this increasing complexity,” Walter Dunkmann explains. “One half of the challenge is to make these increasingly complex processes more transparent and make products easier to use. The other half is to establish continuous digital processes – from the design phase, to the start of operations, to operation of the gripping system, all the way to servicing.” In addition to intelligent systems, the company also needs “clever” communication interfaces that make it easy to integrate, configure and operate gripping systems. Conversely, even the best field devices are useless if they only collect data and then the data cannot be prepared for specific target groups, made available in an appropriate form and put to use. When a press line comes to a standstill in the automotive industry, the maintenance staff need information that is prepared completely differently from the information needed by the management personnel, who are less interested in individual error messages during operation and much more interested in aggregated data about energy consumption. 

That is why Schmalz is pushing these developments even further. They are gradually upgrading their mechatronic components and systems to include NFC (near field communication). They started with the vacuum and pressure switch VSi back in 2015, followed by other devices that are now also available on the market. Important data is now read out directly from a field device’s processor and provided on a suitable platform, for example a smartphone. “The devices speak directly to the user – in the truest sense of the word,” says Walter Dunkmann. “If a gripping system comes to a standstill, it delivers clear information about the source of the fault, not cryptic error codes.”

Schmalz has also established a new business model with its own service app: The company will soon offer the app directly from the Google Play Store. In the free version, the app reads out data from the smart field devices. In the autumn, Schmalz will also offer a licensing model for a version with write capabilities. With this version, smart field devices such as the vacuum and pressure switch VSi, the electrical vacuum generator ECBP or the compact terminal SCTMi can be quickly and easily parameterized from a mobile device. Schmalz is now gradually equipping other devices for app-based operation, including all of its intelligent vacuum ejectors. This will reduce the startup time for a vacuum and pressure switch by up to 75 percent, for example. You simply scan the device using NFC, and then you can transmit the necessary values from the app – intuitively and in just a few seconds. And as a nice bonus, controlling the devices externally from the app interface saves on additional displays and input modules on the gripping systems, which reduces procurement costs by up to 40 percent. 

On January 1, 2017, Schmalz acquired “GPS Gesellschaft für Produktionssysteme GmbH” (Association for Production Systems). “This is another, important cornerstone in our digitalization strategy,” says Walter Dunkmann. Under the SICON product brand, the company now offers a platform-independent box that serves as a gateway for process and application data. The Gateway connects IO-Link devices from different manufacturers with the fieldbus and the larger data landscape – plug and play without no work required. It captures real-time communication sent to the controller and makes it available in the cloud via various protocols such as OPC UA, MQTT or HTTP. “This closes the final gap: Every gripping process can now be mapped, from field level to the cloud,” says Walter Dunkmann. Intelligent smart field devices are now becoming vital suppliers of data, which is made available to the user at the right time, in the right place and in the right format. “Only then can functions such as condition monitoring or predictive maintenance really come into effect – and these functions form the basis of our new business model,” Walter Dunkmann explains. One such function is the service app, which Schmalz will soon make available to its customers. Another takes advantage of the SICON Gateway: In the future, Schmalz will be able to offer completely new service-related products, such as a gripping system that notifies you in good time when it requires maintenance or reaches a critical operating state.

“Our customers benefit from all these features many times over,” Walter Dunkmann concludes. “The products are very easy to integrate into customer production environments and can be put into operation with minimal effort. Functions for condition monitoring or predictive maintenance prevent plant downtimes and provide tangible savings.” At the same time, the solutions for digital environments that Schmalz offers today are already meeting the very real needs of its customers for more flexibility and transparency.


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