“Industry 4.0” — everybody is talking about it, but what really lies behind this catchy term? The latest research shows that 30 to 50 percent of decision-makers from trade and industry do not know what the umbrella term “Industry 4.0” actually means or what its significance is. This has been corroborated by a study conducted by the information technology company CSC among 900 decision-makers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and a survey of mechanical engineers from ten automation-relevant sectors conducted by Quest TechnoMarketing.

The opportunities created by the digital networking of production processes and their integration in the company-wide value creation chain of a future-oriented company are currently being highlighted by medium-sized firm Rhenus Lub, based in Mönchengladbach, Germany. In recent years, the family company has invested some two million euro in further expanding its grease factory in the spirit of “Industry 4.0”. The result can be regarded as a quantum leap in automation technology for manufacturing special lubricants: Through the specific customisation of a standard software model, which is unique anywhere in the world, the entire production process at Rhenus Lub, including filling, has now been digitised. The production IT solution is, of course, integrated into the company-wide ERP system. Drawing on heavily scientific benchmarks and the strictest industrial standards, as required by the automotive industry or in the mechanical engineering sector for example, the owner-managed company is now manufacturing lubricants of new quality with the utmost precision.

Everything starts with a first step

The company took an important first step from simple grease production to “Industry 4.0” back in late 2005 when its specialist grease factory was brought into operation. Even then, the 15 state-of-the-art production lines were equipped with around 1,200 sensors, process encoders, servomotors and actuators, almost all of which could be controlled electronically. Recent IT developments have now enabled information from goods in, raw materials planning, production processes, additive picking, filling and logistics to be added to this data and to be brought together centrally for comprehensive process planning and control.

Automated control boosts quality

Using this data as the basis, lubricant experts together with specialists from M + W Process Automation GmbH developed a special IT solution based on a standard software model, which enables customised batches with a pre-defined composition to be manufactured across three floors of the grease factory using automated processes wherever possible. Top floor: mixers, middle floor: post-production, bottom floor: filling. 20 km of pipelines with 700 control valves transport preliminary, interim and final products from one processing step to the next in a flexible manner. The flexibility of the individual production lines is such that Rhenus Lub can produce high-performance lubricating greases in batches from 30 to 11,000 kg, which are customised precisely to the application in question. Thanks to the advanced automation in particular, flexibility is always ensured, including with a view to the future.

This is crucial as the lubricant specialist based in Mönchengladbach provides its customers, who are drawn from mechanical engineering, the automotive industry, rail and energy technology, agriculture and forestry, with a wide range of tailor-made lubricating greases. In terms of production, this means that up to 1,000 product variants have to be manufactured using complex chemical processes and planned accordingly beforehand. For example, over 30 individual steps are needed to produce a highly specialised polyurea grease. These steps are now controlled and monitored automatically. The next step in the process is only enabled by the program when the right additive is available at the production kettle at the right time. Other process parameters such as the kettle temperature and the speed of the mixers, can now also be controlled automatically using the new IT solution.

Same quality, every time

This new approach to process control allows even complex greases to be produced more precisely, more transparently and, what’s more, in a repeatable manner. And this is possible even though Rhenus Lub sometimes uses natural raw materials that have varying properties. “Our investment puts us in a completely new league”, emphasises Dr. Reiners. “The intelligent use of data and individual algorithms means that we can truly master the interactions that take place in complex production processes, allowing us to control production more precisely and to avoid bad batches”.

Automation assists workers

Automation at the world’s most cutting-edge grease factory also assists Rhenus Lub workers. Because all the production processes can be planned even more precisely on the basis of the data available, the lubricant experts can also arrange and use their working time more effectively. Idle states and waiting times, and avoidable work peaks in particular, are a thing of the past. This means a more even workload and less stress for the workforce. Furthermore, worker error is now unlikely thanks to the automated control of the individual production steps. For example, if additives have to be added very accurately, special programs now ensure that the right amount always goes into the boiling kettle at the right time.

“Digitisation does not mean, however, that we are cutting jobs — on the contrary”, says Dr. Reiners. “In Germany and Europe we are facing intense competition. Our solution based on Industry 4.0 places us firmly at the top among lubricant suppliers and we will remain a key partner in the future for well-known mechanical engineers, car-makers, the rail industry and many other industries. The new investment is therefore helping us to safeguard jobs and will hopefully help us to create new jobs in the long term”.