1/2014

Factory in a box

Riku Heikkilä

 

“Finns should take a more positive stance towards automation. Despite widespread fears that automation leads to massive unemployment, it is actually one of the best ways to keep jobs in Finland,” emphasizes Project Manager Riku Heikkilä.

 

Microfactories bring production closer to consumers. They allow customized products to be manufactured on-demand in the back room of a shop or even in the operating room of a hospital.

Microfactories are portable production facilities that fit on a desk and are capable of producing, processing and assembling mechanical components. They offer significant advantages over conventional production lines: they save energy, take up less factory floor space, and reduce the consumption of raw materials. In addition, on-the-spot manufacturing eliminates the time lapse between placing an order and receiving the goods.

“Micro and desktop factories are already a reality, but our modular concept is the most advanced system in the world. It even includes a built-in cleanroom,” says Project Manager Riku Heikkilä from the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Systems at TUT.

Showcasing expertise in Hannover

TUT's microfactory was exhibited at the international trade fair Hannover Messe in spring 2013. Researchers from the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Systems will travel to Hannover again this spring to showcase their expertise.

“The Hannover Messe provides a forum for us to present our current research activities and ideas that we believe will interest our existing and potential partners as well as the general public visiting the fair,” says Professor Reijo Tuokko.

“First and foremost, we’re seeking closer collaboration with our German partners, such as RWTH Aachen University and the OWL Leading-Edge Cluster. We’ll take the opportunity to discuss the submission of joint proposals for bilateral or multilateral EU projects under the H2020 and FoF-PPP programmes.”

Researchers from the Department of Intelligent Hydraulics and Automation at TUT will also attend the Hannover Messe.

 

The Lego-like structure of interlocking modules has been designed for easy installation. The design approach drives down costs and ensures that production lines are up and running in no time. As Heikkilä says, the costs of designing conventional custom-made production lines can add up quickly, whereas the microfactory concept allows manufacturers to focus on designing ready-made modular facilities.

Medical implants fabricated in hospitals?

Fully automated microfactories turn out, for example, mechanical components and watches that are the size of a mobile phone. They can perform not only menial tasks, such as tightening bolts and screws, but also sophisticated manoeuvres.

According to Heikkilä, microfactories can also be used in laboratories for dosing, analysis and measurement purposes and in the healthcare sector for analysis and testing purposes. He believes that microfactories have massive potential for growth, especially in the electronics and healthcare sectors.

“Someday in the future, it may be possible to fabricate customized replacement parts for the human body, such as a personalized plate that holds a broken cheekbone in place while it heals, right there in the operating room during surgery. The technology is already out there, but the use of it remains heavily regulated,” says Heikkilä.

Quickly and easily assembled

The modular microfactory concept developed by researchers at the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Systems is based on modules (20 x 30 x 22 cm) with a built-in work space, auxiliary systems and cleanroom. The self-contained base modules can be easily connected to other modules and feeding systems to create a larger structure. Modules that offer additional features, such as robotics, machine vision and lasers, can be placed on top of the base module. The modular structure allows the portable desktop production facility to be quickly and easily assembled and disassembled.

 

Text: Leena Koskenlaakso
Photo: Petri Laitinen

 
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