At the turn of November and December this year, the so-called testbed will open at CEITEC BUT. This is a smart test factory, which is not only intended for research, but also to help small and medium-sized companies. They will be able to use it thanks to the associated EDIH project under favourable conditions. The innovation was developed under the RICAIP centre, which is co-funded by the European Union. The coordinator of the project at CEITEC BUT is the leader of the technical cybernetics programme Professor Pavel Václavek.
Author: Kristýna Filová
You are one of the leaders of the RICAIP project, what is it about?
RICAIP is a project implemented by four partners. On the Czech side it is CTU CIIRC and CEITEC BUT, on the German side it is DFKI and ZeMA from Saarbrücken. We have cooperated with these partners before and the intention was to prepare a project for the Teaming for Excellence call, which is a special area focused on the transfer of excellence from old EU member states to new ones. Strangely enough, we are still accepted as a new member country. The aim is to create or upgrade, to open up new lines of research within a newly built centre of excellence. There always has to be at least one partner from a new member country and at least one from an old member country who is in a sort of mentor role to help build and launch the new research area. And this idea came at a time when concepts such as Industry 4.0, digitisation and automation of production had started to develop intensively. The mecca for these concepts is Germany, but the Czech Republic, as an industrial country, is also a location for these concepts.
What do you mean by this?
Within the framework of Industry 4.0, workplaces are being created abroad where new technologies can be tested in an environment that is close to the real industrial environment. Large companies where there is a production facility have their own opportunities to experiment, but it is a bit risky if something goes wrong, production would stop. Small companies, on the other hand, may have some innovative technology, but it’s beyond their financial means to buy a robotic line to try something on that line that would help them or not. That is why there are so-called testbeds for Industry 4.0, which are actually test “smart factories” where technologies can be tested. There was nothing like this in the Czech Republic, so we prepared the RICAIP project, which offers testbeds in Brno and Prague. A testbed in Ostrava is also being built as part of other projects. Each is focused on something different.
What does the Brno testbed look like?
It is an industrial hall where we can find a set of different robots, production machines, machining centres where we can test production, but also equipment for control, diagnostics of modern drives. Furthermore, there is automation equipment, i.e. industrial control systems, to ensure the operation of the whole, the production line. It is also a question of software. The testbed is equipped with a software solution for the design or simulation of the product, the production process and, for example, the design of software for programming individual production machines. There is also the intertwining of IT, so data storage and analysis, the interconnection of individual testbeds to share data, production documents for distributed manufacturing spread over multiple sites. Last but not least, the testbed is also about artificial intelligence, which appears in many applications. It’s actually a little bit of each area. And of course it’s also about people, because we’re counting on collaboration between machines and humans.
Have you heard from anyone who’s interested in trying it out?
We haven’t advertised the Brno testbed much yet, because we are in the building phase and we should finish it at the end of this year. However, there are already some interested parties. I wouldn’t name them yet, but one is a company that deals with security of industrial data networks and wants to test some technologies within their industry. What I can already mention today is the cooperation with T-Mobile, which has come with the intention of launching a private 5G network for industrial communication on our testbed. We also presented it at International Engineering Fair in Brno. However, there will be many other interested parties, and I expect that when the testbed is fully operational and the EDIH project is added to it, many more companies will appear.
How is the RICAIP project financed?
It is a combined funding. The operating costs are covered by the European Union, while the investment and the actual equipment comes from national budgets, in our case the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports. About 15 million euros came from the EU and about 800 million crowns were provided by the the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports. So it’s quite a big event, and CEITEC received about CZK 450 million from all of this to build the testbed.
When did you start the project?
The project was divided into two phases. The first one started in 2018 and it was to prepare the concept of the centre. It was a preparatory phase paid for by Brussels. The second phase started in September 2019, it was significantly complicated and slowed down by the covid-19 pandemic. The brake pedal was slow to lift, there was a shortage of chips after covid and all our systems are electronics-based, so it was not and is not easy to complete the testbed equipment. The lead times for things that we were able to buy within a month extended to a year. Despite this, we plan to open at the end of November.
What are the benefits of Industry 4.0, what is its focus?
Industry 4.0 as such is not about materials, it’s not about technology, it’s about the engineering itself. Industry 4.0 is about automation, digitalisation, digital twins, artificial intelligence, i.e. how to manage that production, how to do diagnostics, how to make sure that machines behave intelligently. This is something that I think is very much reflected in engineering technology nowadays because it goes hand in hand with saving time, getting rid of downtime, how to make sure that the human and the machine work together efficiently. It’s a way to increase production efficiency, reduce scrap and energy costs and ensure competitiveness. In essence, Industry 4.0 is targeting the things that really bother businesses.
And can the testbed provide companies with a cure for all this?
We can’t offer to save the world by teaching big companies something they wouldn’t have figured out on their own, but we are able to help specifically small and medium-sized companies and perhaps academic teams to try out a new technology. A simple example. Someone invents a new mobile robot that will transport products in collaboration with a human in a manufacturing facility and now they want to test it, see how it behaves. Either they take it into a harsh production environment where it can create havoc and disrupt production, or they test it in a testbed to see if everything works.
If someone decides to come to you. What happens afterwards in the testbed? Is the production process simulated?
It’s not so much a simulation. Suppose a company has developed a new navigation system for a mobile robot. In the testbed, we are able to create an environment that is close to a real industrial environment – machines set up, people moving around in production, material stacked somewhere, places that are difficult to navigate, just like in a real factory. And on the testbed, we’re going to run a real robot with a new navigation system. We can track its exact trajectory, how it wanders where, and evaluate if it could have gone better.
So can I really imagine this as a fragment of a factory process?
Yes, even if it’s not primarily what we’d like to do, we can run production on the testbed. We can do, say, a small batch production, 200 units of a special product. There’s a whole range of things that can be tested there.
What are you personally looking forward to? What will you be testing in the testbed?
I’m working on electric drives. So for us, it’s an environment for testing new algorithms, controls and diagnostics for special drives, whether in an industrial environment or in electric mobility. We are also looking at drives for future electric vehicles, so this will also be able to be tested in relation to AI technologies. That’s what’s very close to my heart, but otherwise I’m looking forward to everything that’s going to be there.
CEITEC BUT has also acquired the EDIH project, which you have already mentioned. What is that about?
That came together nicely. We started to deal with the RICAIP project and then the European Commission’s intention to set up the so-called European Digital Innovation Hubs (EDIH) came up. The European Commission’s intention is to build consultancy centres that would be able to support digitalisation in small and medium-sized companies and public administrations in various areas – in manufacturing, healthcare, transport, etc. Although it is on a European impulse, the project is national in nature and should have an impact directly in the regions. Five such workplaces are to be established in the Czech Republic, two of them in Brno.
What will you focus on in the EDIH CEITEC project?
We, within the EDIH DIGIMAT, are targeting the production technologies of small and medium-sized companies. We plan to provide consulting, training, production testing or “test before invest” services. A company can try anything in the testbed before investing in it, for example in robotics, to see if it really gains something. We can also help technology-oriented companies. For example, if they develop a new sensor for machine tool diagnostics and they need to check if the sensor works, if it makes sense to continue development and invest in it, they can come and install their instrumentation on our machines and check if it works.
When is it going to go live?
From 1 January 2023.
And how much will small and medium-sized businesses pay to use testbed or for consulting services?
That’s a great question. If we were just talking about the RICAIP project, commercial entities would have to pay for it, and it would not be an insignificant amount. But EDIH projects compensate for this drawback. They make these services available to smaller and medium-sized companies. Most of the costs are covered by the EDIH project and a minimal share by the bidder. The aim of this fee is to get companies to think a little bit about what they want to test on the testbed.