Autonomous manufacturing – an entire industry needs to catch up

The rolling bearing industry lags far behind other sectors when it comes to autonomous production.

Fewer and fewer people have to produce more and more. This is already a long-standing trend from the past that will continue in the future.

It will even become an essential necessity. Current production concepts in the rolling bearing industry require highly qualified personnel, even or especially when they are highly automated. People are needed for operating, setting up and optimizing.

But what happens when people are simply no longer available? An observation that can be made all over the world, for various reasons - staff shortages. Whether it's a lack of training, competition between companies or simply a whole generation that doesn't want to work in a traditional manufacturing environment, the result is the same.

As this topic is not only of concern to the rolling bearing industry, but also to all other industries and sectors, there has been a rapid surge in development in recent years. Autonomous production has long been standard in many industrial sectors. In the rolling bearing industry, however, it is still little or non-existent. This is where the production environment for rolling bearing components needs to catch up in order to remain competitive in the long term.

The reasons for this have so far been the special requirements of the industry. High flexibility, part diversity with small batch sizes and quantities have so far led to conventional production structures. Especially in the industrial bearings segment. Although there has been heavy investment in automation, automation does not always mean autonomous. In individual cases, autonomous systems have also been implemented, but this has usually led to very complex technical solutions.

If you look a little further than just the industrial environment or industrial production, this megatrend becomes even clearer. The logistics sector is leading the way with autonomous distribution centers. Or we look at agriculture, where autonomous harvesting machines have been developed and used for a long time. Achieving the same or even more with fewer people is the common denominator here.

Consistent development addresses megatrend

Supfina Grieshaber has been a supplier and development partner to the international rolling bearing industry for decades and has already helped shape many trends from the past. It was therefore obvious that Supfina would also take on this trend topic. In order to map the production chain of a rolling bearing ring, the superfinishing process must also be mapped in an autonomous manner. And it is precisely in this process step of superfinishing that particular hurdles arise during implementation. Supfina's starting point was also existing solutions, such as the proven RacePro and RaceFlex series. Although these can be used very flexibly and also have a high degree of automation, these machines are designed so that people play a central role. Set-up processes, production sequences such as tool changes and interaction with the control system are optimized for the operator.

Machines that fit into today's production structure, but do not meet the requirements of an autonomous approach.

System solution for autonomous and unmanned operation 24/7 stone change during production Automatic batch change, robot-assisted

The Supfina Race Modular series is therefore a new addition to the portfolio. In very close cooperation with our customers, this system solution has been systematically developed for autonomous and unmanned operation. All essential production processes are automated. The batch change or mechanical set-up process, the tool or finishing stone change in production and classic component handling are mapped 24/7 without an operator. The name of the series already reflects its modular design, which enables a wide range of functions to be mapped. This in turn addresses the diverse process requirements in relation to the different types of rolling bearings.

The configuration can be adapted to bearing designs such as cylindrical roller bearings, tapered roller bearings, spherical roller bearings or ball bearings, for example, and can be expanded at any time in a future-proof manner.

In order to implement the aforementioned functionality technically, the machine is equipped with features that make the entire process practically possible. Machine elements such as the workpiece drive, stone holder, centering system and workpiece handling are designed with automatically actuated interfaces. These and the associated elements can be removed from and returned to the machine using a 6-axis robot. The robot therefore plays a central role in the implementation. However, a robot alone is not enough. A practicable solution can only be created by merging the robot and processing machine into a single unit.

Last but not least, the entire data communication also plays a decisive role. If there is no operator who can enter the workpiece and process data at the controller, this data must be transferred via interfaces to the IT infrastructure.

Relevance goes far beyond Superfinishing

For the user of such a system, however, a superfinishing machine cannot be viewed in isolation. The interaction between the machine that performs the final processing step and the entire production line or cell is crucial. Furthermore, operational and logistical processes must also be included in the planning of such a production structure. How workpieces and tools are made available to the system are just a few examples of key issues that go beyond the machine itself.

Looking at all these topics from today's perspective, highly flexible and autonomous rolling bearing production seems to be a very long leap into the future. For some, this leap will seem too far. But some companies have already taken this giant leap into the future and the first machines from the Supfina Race Modular series have been delivered.

In conclusion, it remains to be said that shaping this change in the rolling bearing industry will require the commitment of an entire sector, including the associated machine tool industry.

Supfina Grieshaber GmbH & Co. KG

Schmelzegrün 7
77709 Wolfach / Germany
+49 7834 866-0
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Supfina Machine Company, Inc.

181 Circuit Drive
North Kingstown
RI 02852-7439 / USA

+1 401-294-6600
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