In the “transparent factory”, car enthusiasts can watch vehicles being assembled part by part, and a new system set up by researchers of the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA even enables users to try their own hand at producing a quad bike, a four-wheeled motorbike. They can switch on conveyor belts, program industrial robots, and paint the frame themselves. At the end, they can zoom out of the factory hall with their finished product without paying a single cent. How is this possible? Because the factory does not exist in the real world but on the Internet platform of “Second Life”, a virtual world through which users can move in the form of a virtual figure known as an “avatar”. “With the ‘factory of eMotions’, we want to familiarize people with a modern, technically advanced factory. We also want to demonstrate how the latest media can set things in motion,” says IPA scientist Stefan Seitz. “Second Life has grown steadily: While in 2007, between 20,000 and 40,000 people were simultaneously online at any given time, this number has now risen to between 50,000 and 80,000.” In the factory, users first of all indicate which quad model they would like to produce. Powerful or fuel-saving? Black, silver or red? What type of wheel rims? They can choose from a variety of models as they please. Once their avatar has made a choice, production can begin. The parts list is sent out, and all components are manufactured, assembled and subjected to a quality inspection. The avatar can watch the production process and interact at certain stages. Learning platforms located at various points in the factory hall provide users with relevant background information. How is the production process controlled? How does a press work? “The main challenge lay in reproducing the control logic for production – in other words, teaching the system how to produce a part on Machine A, transport it to Machine B and mount it there. Until now, the ‘Second Life’ platform has offered no support for this,” says Seitz. The researchers have developed a modular system which also enables any other product to be made. Industrial companies and private users can use the building blocks to set up their own virtual factories. The scientists have even integrated a speech recognition system, so the machines and robots can also be controlled by telephone. The factory will be revealed to the public in early July on the occasion of the IPA’s 50th anniversary.
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