Autonomous Intelligent Vehicles Supply Production Machines

Swiss company Digmesa has developed, manufactured and distributed flow measurement devices for fluids for almost 38 years. In combining the locations of the two subsidiaries, processes and production for both companies had to be restructured and moved to a new hall. As part of this relocation project, they wanted to automate the transport processes supplying the assembly machines, and in just four months, the solution including an autonomous intelligent vehicle was up and running. We talked with directors Stefan Schneider and Dominik Huber about the new flexible solution.

Supply in production
6 cycles / hour

In what areas is Digmesa active and what has changed over time?

Stefan Schneider: “Digmesa is a typical small to medium sized company, and we develop, produce and distribute flow meters for various industries. You’ll find a flow meter that we built in almost every coffee machine in the world. That’s why the coffee machine boom and the digitalization of the past ten years has resulted in a particular upswing for our business. When I first started at Digmesa, we were producing 100,000 flow meters a year. In the meantime, that number has grown to 10 million. You can’t easily produce these numbers manually, so early on, we began to automate.”

Dominik Huber: “Polyform Kopp AG was acquired by Digmesa in 2013, and rebranded. We do classic contract work in thermoplastic injection molding and produce plastic parts for Digmesa, but also for other customers. We’ve had to constantly invest and adapt our processes to be able to produce these huge numbers. Last year, we combined locations and introduced an ERP system. Our work together recently took a step forward when we added the KNAPP system.”

Portrait of Stefan Schneider, CEO of Digmesa AG

Stefan Schneider is CEO of Digmesa AG. He has been in the company for 19 years, previously working in product development, and for the past three and half years as Managing Director.

CEO of Digmesa Polyform AG Dominik Huber.

Dominik Huber has been CEO of Digmesa Polyform AG since 2015. He has been with the company for 15 years, previously heading up procurement.

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Autonomous intelligent vehicle provides reliable material flow to the injection molding machines

At Digmesa Polyform, an Open Shuttle is being used for bringing empty containers to the injection molding machines and for transporting the finished pieces to their next stop. The central starting point of the solution is a flow rack. Here, buffer storage is organized around a FIFO storage strategy (first-in, first-out). A KNAPP PLC application controls the solution completely without any connection to a Host system. Light curtains at the racks are used to keep track of how full the individual channels are.

The autonomous intelligent vehicle (AIV) from KNAPP, called Open Shuttle, hands off containers to a flow rack.

Overview about the Open Shuttle solution

Brings empty containers to the production machines; transports finished pieces away
Number of shuttles:
1 Open Shuttle
Load carrier:
Container 400 x 300 mm, 15 kg (up to 50 kg possible)
6 cycles/hour
Path segments:
30 m
Flow rack:
60 channels, 15 rows with 4 levels, 20 small load carriers / channel
3 channels for quality assurance, 12 channels for empty containers
KiSoft FMS, PLC control system by KNAPP, no connection to the host system
Work stations:
6 short conveyors for pickup and delivery at the production machines
Special features:
RFID technology for traceability
November 2020

What was the process like before you used the Open Shuttle?

Dominik Huber: “We had been using a simple filling system, which filled cartons with the plastic parts. These were then weighed on a counting scale, counted and the cartons hand-labelled. A driver had to bring the cartons to the Digmesa location three times a week. The parts were then submitted to a further quality check before they were added to the assembly machines. The cartons then made the return trip. By switching over to using an Open Shuttle, we were able to optimize processes and save resources.”

Stefan Schneider: “The decision to combine the locations opened up many opportunities for us. We used value stream mapping as an analysis to help us design the material flow processes for the new building from the entry of the raw materials all the way to goods-out. We are talking about 10 million pieces of the same product type. Our injection molding machines run continuously, with 24/7 operation of our assembly machines, so optimal material flow is important, as is having no standstills. This was the critical factor for investing in an autonomous system that – without a driver – puts things in the right place.”

Thanks to the Open Shuttle, we’ve not only optimized our processes, but also our storage quantities.

Stefan Schneider
CEO Digmesa AG

What made you decide on an autonomous intelligent vehicle as transporter?

Stefan Schneider: “Basically, we were looking for the simplest way to get parts from the injection molding machines to the warehouse. We looked at various different automation solutions. We realized that an autonomous intelligent vehicle (AIV) could handle all of these tasks independently. The implementation time was also crucial. The new building was planned, and we needed to find a suitable solution. The “simple” solution that we now have comprises three components: a warehouse, an Open Shuttle and the outfeed points. KNAPP made this all possible thanks to the simplicity of the solution and the rapid, competent project implementation.”

Dominik Huber: “I absolutely agree with Mr. Schneider. The real advantage is that the Open Shuttle has an integrated lifter, which really set the KNAPP AIV apart. I looked at a few systems on exhibit and none of them had a lifter.”

Stefan Schneider: “What really convinced us was the shuttle’s functionalities. In comparison with other systems, with the Open Shuttle, we can pick up and deliver at various heights. This is something we needed that only the KNAPP AIV could fulfill. As we began to talk to the KNAPP employees, we also quickly realized how dynamic, flexible and competent the company is. This was very impressive, and we also had a lot of confidence in the solution they finally gave us.”

The flexibility that we gain by using this system is incredibly valuable. We didn’t have to install anything for the Open Shuttle in production. There are just the general travel paths that it needs and nothing else.

Dominik Huber
CEO Digmesa Polyform AG

Thanks to the integrated lifter on the Open Shuttle, it is possible to pick up and deliver small load carriers at heights of 550 mm to 1500 mm. While the shuttle is moving to its next stop, it automatically moves up or down to suit the next pickup or delivery location.

The Open Shuttle’s integrated lifter is on the lowest level.
The Open Shuttle’s integrated lifter allows for more flexibility, making loading and unloading at different heights possible.
The Open Shuttle’s integrated lifter is on the highest level.

Do you want to learn more about Open Shuttles?

Click here for autonomous mobile robots.

As a company grows, automation becomes more important. However, some might say jobs are lost because of this. How do you see the situation?

Stefan Schneider: “The person is a central element in the Digmesa corporate culture. We want to live up to these values in the future as well, and we want to give our employees the opportunity to develop. You can be sure that automation generates a certain type of job, and in extreme cases, eliminates jobs in other areas. I see our situation like this: Without automation, we could not produce these quantities. Especially not at the Swiss site. We would have no chance to exist as a company. This really means that without automation, there would certainly be fewer jobs. We see it as an opportunity to keep developing new products and innovations, stimulating growth and creating jobs.”

Dominik Huber: “Of course, current trends mean that more specialists are needed, and fewer unskilled workers. However, at the quantities that we produce, automation also makes things easier for employees. Processes such as carrying cartons, unpacking and rearranging, are perfect candidates for automation. A human resource is a valuable resource, and I want to employ people for tasks that are interesting, and not for tasks that are better off automated.”

Autonomous intelligent vehicle links two companies

Das fahrerlose Transportfahrzeug (FTF) von KNAPP heißt Open Shuttle.A small survey resulted in a few suggestions from which the name “Knappi” was selected for the Open Shuttle. Knappi is now hard at work, forming the link between the two companies.

The Open Shuttle has been up and running for a couple of months. What are your thoughts on the system so far?

Dominik Huber: “We have worked a lot with the Open Shuttle and the experiences are good. At the beginning, there were a few difficulties with the positioning, which was related to the new building. With your help, Mr. Schneider and I were able to solve this problem very quickly. In the meantime, we are really thrilled with all the different things we can do with it.”

Is there anything about the project that you would do differently?

Stefan Schneider: “Yes, we would do things differently on our side. Everything happened at the same time. Moving to the new building, setting up the system, the startup of the machines as well as the KNAPP system, the reorganization of our purchasing routine and, at that same time, production had to continue. It was quite stressful. The startup of the injection molding machines was scheduled at the same time as the startup of the AIV. We could have done better with the scheduling. But from just the project development perspective, with KNAPP everything functioned well on both sides.”

The Open Shuttle has become the link between the two companies. You can see on a daily basis how seamlessly it links the two areas.

Stefan Schneider
CEO Digmesa AG
The autonomous intelligent vehicle (AIV) from KNAPP supplies injection molding machines by Digmesa.

What are your goals for the future?

Stefan Schneider: “The first thing on the list is to finish with moving and getting operations combined for the two companies. Culturally speaking as well, there is still a lot to do. This affects the improvement of the technical consolidation and processes. Furthermore, we are still feeling the effects of the pandemic in a major way. Everyone is still working from home and has invested in at least one additional coffee machine (laughs). Our order books are full, and now we have to create the capacity. This means capacity not only in injection molding, but also in assembly. We have made plans for large investments to ensure that we can fulfill the demand for our products. In addition to this, we also want to continue to develop our company, be innovative and develop new products.”

Dominik Huber: “The consolidation of the two companies at the Ipsach location and the connection of the production areas with the Open Shuttle is just the first step. Now we’ve got to get on with the cultural integration, and which projects will then open up after that, well, we’ll just have to see what happens.”

What other tasks could the Open Shuttle handle in your company?

Stefan Schneider: “Well, I have a few ideas (laughs). Right now, the AIV is bringing the parts to the warehouse automatically. From there, we are bringing them to the assembly machines manually. This is also a transport task from one defined location to a clearly defined destination, which is currently carried out by an employee. This process would definitely be eligible for automation. I’m sure there is still potential to be used.”


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