AGILE project: the manufacturing industry in Veneto becomes smart

The AGILE project, which started in September 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and ended in September 2022, was born with the objective of increasing the competitiveness of companies and product innovation.

Smart in Italian means “intelligent”, but it can also have a different interpretation, such as “agile”. Being smart, applied to an entrepreneurial reality, describes the ability of the company and of production to transform together with the technological changes (and not only), more and more rapid.

This is the era of Smart Manufacturing. But how agile are the businesses in our region?

Intelligent or agile manufacturing is characterised by the use of digital information systems in production, high levels of adaptability, rapid design changes (depending on demand) and a technical workforce with more flexible training.
Other aspects related to smart manufacturing include optimized logistics and high recyclability and, where this is not possible, a low tendency to waste through efficient production programming through virtual simulations.

So, as you can see, agile manufacturing can be very broadly understood to include different technologies, including intangibles like big data and robotics and connectivity services.

The AGILE project for Venetian companies

The AGILE project, which started in September 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and ended in September 2022, was born with the objective of increasing the competitiveness of companies and product innovation in the context of emergencies caused by the pandemic situation, in business operational life.
It has its roots in this question: how can smart working models be realized in very different manufacturing companies?

The strategy chosen to guide the recovery of the Venetian socio-economic system in a post-emergency perspective was based on an extensive and in-depth comparison with the Venetian system of companies and research.

To give an exhaustive answer to the initial question we focused on types of production lines that could give a true representation of the manufacturing reality of our region, with these industrial areas: foundry of aluminum alloys, of magnesium and cast iron alloys. The European Commission has recently published a report on the European Union’s role in this field.

The study, which lasted a total of 2 years, involved 12 partners, mostly manufacturing: Zanardi Fonderie SpA, Ecor International SpA, Saen Srl, AM Teknostampi SpA, Delka Srl, Promotoec lsmc Srl, MBN SpA, Unilab Srl, Enginsoft SpA, Gom Italia Srl, Cnr Icmate, Enginsoft, University of Padua with the Departments of Technology and Management of Industrial Systems and Industrial Engineering.
The partnership has worked on the development of interdisciplinary methodologies and approaches, based on the ability of rapid and flexible conversion of processes and production lines.

In summary, AGILE represented a sort of “industrial reaction” to the COVID-19 emergency, built on flexibility, reconversion and resilience.

The results of this joint project, as will be seen later, have brought innovations capable of exceeding the time limits of the emergency, to place themselves in a wider field of corporate competitiveness following the dictates of the new paradigm Industry 4.0.

Ecor International and the AGILE project

The role of Ecor International within the project focused on the development of innovative solutions for joining processes and their industrialization, in the context of agile manufacturing.
The AGILE project highlighted Ecor International’s diverse expertise by focusing on two diversified case studies. The first case examined the vacuum brazing process, involving the Advanced Mechanics area, with the Pharma and Food Business Units; the second case studied the titanium air conditioning circuit pipe, involving the Aerospace Business Unit.

Advanced quality control system

As for the project carried out in the Advanced Mechanics area, the final objective was to equip itself with an integrated quality-process system, achieving a predictive model and an advanced quality control system, able to monitor the occurrence of possible defects during processing.

The group dedicated to this research line of Ecor International had as its object the brazing of a particular type of electrical condenser, formed by conductive elements (such as copper and steel) and insulating elements (typically ceramics).
The first phase included the preliminary analysis of all the various process phases and the identification of possible automations and standardizations, to ensure efficiency and continuity of production, interchangeability of personnel and quality of production.

Then we moved on to virtualization with the digitization of process data, through the creation of a database including all production data, quality data and data on thermal cycles.

Once the process variables and the respective parameters to be analysed have been identified, a prototype system has been created, based on the hypothesis that the variables that could induce defect and therefore to be controlled are: temperature (non-conformity in the treatment room), degree of cleanliness and dimensional requirements of the product parts to be assembled.

The decisive step to achieve the effective digital upgrade of the “Furnace Area” was to use and customize the Smart product platform made by Enginsoft (the engineering company in the partnership). This made it possible to monitor the activity of the furnace in real time, to trace the entire production cycle and to remotely control the “Oven System”.

This platform allowed the integration of multiresolution and multivariate process data, which were all collected and monitored in order to describe an overall production-quality time trend.

The objective, from the thermal point of view, was also to be able to create a predictive FEM model able to reliably describe the process and act as a decision support system to define the process parameters according to the thermal masses treated from time to time.

In conclusion, thanks to the AGILE project, the internal rebalancing cycle at Ecor International has evolved into an integrated and digitalized system.

Digitization of the manual welding process

In the second case study related to the AGILE project, the TIG welding of titanium tubes that make up the air conditioning circuit of aircraft, the goal was to reduce defects and rework, maintaining the quality standard and improving operators’ capabilities.

Manual TIG (Tungsten Inert Gas) welding is one of the most common joining processes, which allows the creation of high quality joints on relatively low thicknesses. It is a special process, so it is essential to control and set the parameters upstream in order to make the process repeatable and qualitatively compliant to specifications.

The most innovative aspect of the study was to be able to correlate all variables related to the skills of the manual welder with the results of destructive and non-destructive tests, in order to be able to predict the goodness or otherwise of a weld and avoid any repairs.

As in the previous case, the preliminary phase also involved the digitization of process data to create a database of defects and quality data, and the identification of KPIs, based on historical data, to define a control panel to support decisions during the reconfiguration of welding cycles.

With respect to the case of brazing, as anticipated before, in addition to assuming the presence of heterogeneity in terms of degree of cleanliness and geometry, a new variable has been taken into account, which has a decisive influence on the final result and which is very difficult to control: the “operator system”.

In fact, the tracking of the gestures of the welder and his technique, through the digitalization of the welding process, has proved to be the key point to correlate any non-compliance of a manual process that has in the human variable its most important parameter.

In order to monitor the operator’s execution technique, it was decided to proceed with the adoption of a MOCAP (Motion Capture) system and innovative StretchSense gloves.
This system allows continuous monitoring and storage of process data. In addition, it was decided to also monitor and record the operating parameters related to the equipment through an implementation of the analog welding machine.

The conclusion of the study was that the availability of digitization of the manual welding process has an important role in limiting the consequences related to the unavailability of the individual operator (as in this period of pandemic by Covid19). In fact now it is possible to start tracing the process “excellent”, considered as “reference case” with respect to space/time variables, which allows to identify in a comparative way if and where an operator can induce defect, thus facilitating the non-destructive testing phases.

This smart reconfiguration has led to improvements in performance quality in the first place, allowing the process to be standardized across multiple operators, enhancing the department’s technical capabilities and expertise. Secondly, it has ensured continuity of production, limited delays and, consequently, also the reduction of production downtime, thanks to the possibility of training non-employed operators of the specific product.

Project findings

The results of the AGILE project were evaluated according to these six parameters:

  • Agility in quick reconfiguration
  • Control through digitalization and artificial intelligence
  • Production process efficiency and reconfiguration
  • Zero Defect Manufacturing (ZDM) and Waste Reduction
  • Green factory and reduction of energy consumption
  • Sustainability: cost reduction and start-up time for new productions

“We are proud of the results we have achieved in these two years of joint work, in terms of time optimization, reduction of materials and energy, training of more effective personnel and quality control,” – says Domenico Stocchi, Coordination of the Ecor International team composed of P. Busetti, F. Pozzebon, R. Rigon, G. Roana, P. Campagnari, supported by the expertise of the technical staff of both laboratories and production lines -.

“This project within our company has shown how important every person who cooperates is and can contribute to the process of research and improvement; and outside allowed us to present the final results for the virtualization of the manual welding process at the 39th National Conference of the National Association of Metallurgy“.