Fraunhofer Institute for Optronics, Systems Technologies and Image Exploitation (IOSB) has developed a retrofit box that integrates machines into modern production systems like MES and SCADA, helping medium-sized companies take the leap into Industrie 4.0.

Consistent implementation of Industrie 4.0 still often fails because older devices that do not yet have the necessary interfaces are still in use. In the worst case, the machines then work in isolation in the production hall. Fraunhofer's Plug-and-Work cube ensures that existing machines and systems can be integrated into the production system.

The cube, according to Fraunhofer, houses a standard industrial PC with Windows as the operating system. The machine, which provides all information about itself and its capabilities via network cable to the cube, is integrated into the production system, allowing it to communicate with other systems and it is accessible via the network.

"In principle, this is very similar to the installation of a USB device, such as a printer, on your office PC," said Project Manager Dr. Olaf Sauer. “You simply plug your device in, the device describes itself to the computer, the computer goes on line if required to find the right driver, and then the computer can fully interact with and pass information back and forth to control the device to do things (like print, copy files…)."

The first step sees the cube creating a self-description of the machine on the basis of the XML data format AutomationM (Automation Markup Language). An assistance tool facilitates the structure of the self-description by means of an intuitive, graphical user interface. With this model, the cube or gateway PC automatically generates the communication server in the second step for exchanging information with other machines and the superordinate production control. The tools also register changes to the machine, such as an updated configuration, and a change manager records the new configuration and forwards it to the communication server.

"Data from the connected machines can also be stored on the Plug-and-Work cube," said Sauer. "The employees in plant management always see what is happening on the machine and immediately recognise any problems occurring. In this way, transparency prevails in the production hall."

The server in the cube uses the OPC UA (Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture) communication protocol, which adopts an internationally accepted standard that ensures the greatest possible compatibility in machine-to-machine communication. Data security is also ensured as all data is transmitted in encrypted form, and only authorised devices can connect with the system.

Up to 20 machines can be connected to a single cube, depending on the complexity of the machine data and parameters, according to Fraunhofer.