Taking sustainable production to the next level

Part 1: Research project “Agile resource-efficient production network”

2021/03/26 by

If industry wants to face up to the challenges of the energy transition, it must rethink production – a complex transformation process that TU Darmstadt supports with new digital and AI-based solutions. The scientists behind it are application-oriented, interdisciplinary and holistic. Their common goal: to promote emission reductions, resource conservation and flexible energy use technologically. And in doing so, also to contribute to more companies putting environmentally and economically sustainable production on their strategic agendas. In the ETA Factory, researchers and their practical partners have a model factory on the Lichtwiese campus where they can validate their innovations and make them ready for practice.

The south facade of the ETA Factory of the TU Darmstadt.

On the way to an intelligent product

Intelligent and networked machines with the lowest possible carbon footprint protect the environment and save resources. Researchers at TU Darmstadt reveal how this works.

How can networked production help to create transparency with regard to the resources used? What data is required for monitoring this, and how can it be used by companies so that they can apply it across all their locations? These were the initial questions with which researchers at TU Darmstadt launched the product “Agile resource-efficient production network”, ArePron for short.

“Many predominantly medium-sized machine and plant manufacturers still cannot understand Which resources they use at which steps in production , and how much energy they use in the process,” explains Professor Matthias Weigold, co-director of the Institute of Production Management, Technology and Machine Tools (PTW). With the agile production network that has now been established within the ArePron project, he and his research colleagues have come much closer to the goal of “more transparency”.

In this network, production machines from the two learning factories ETA (Energy Technologies and Applications in Production) and CiP (Center for Industrial Productivity) of TU Darmstadt are digitally linked, and individual components fitted with sensors for tracking their resource consumption. The operating data collected is sent to an IoT platform, where it is evaluated and visualised and the results are expressed in CO2 equivalents. This makes it possible to understand how much carbon dioxide is emitted at which point, and individual components can be compared in terms of their carbon footprint.

The project results are now available in the form of a practical guide for industrial application. “We have taken the first important step towards digital, sustainable production, which offers the opportunity to establish resource efficiency as a new target figure,” emphasises Professor Joachim Metternich, who heads the PTW with Matthias Weigold.

We have taken the first important step towards digital, sustainable production, which offers the opportunity to establish resource efficiency as a new target figure.

The mechanical engineering department at TU Darmstadt has long been committed to the development of “environmentally-friendly products” by means of a holistic calculation approach from the extraction of the raw material to disposal, and has already initiated successful solutions for this purpose.

Beyond traditional numerical methods, digital technologies now offer new opportunities for an increasingly individual and precise life cycle assessment of products. The currently on-going research project DiNaPro demonstrates the potential. It is further developing the digital twin technology, which in the future will enable end-to-end mapping of the life cycle of products when operating IoT platforms. “Every component should be given a digital image that doesn't just automatically show the actual state of a component in operation in real time,” explains Professor Reiner Anderl, Head of the Department of Computer Integrated Design (DiK). “The digital twin is intended to provide information on all the data that is incorporated in the product.” The aim is to create assistance systems that will not only allow industrial companies to optimise their product planning and production, but will also be able to integrate CO2 monitoring into the process control over the entire life cycle of a product.

Product should carry a lot of important information

Emissions, electricity consumption, wear: the intelligent product of the future will have to carry a lot of important information inside itself. It will not only enable companies to predict errors before they occur for “predictive maintenance”, reducing scrap, tool breaks and downtimes, but will also have to be a product that, thanks to its individual properties, can be continuously optimised. Experts at TU Darmstadt are already thinking beyond the technical questions. Smart products can offer lots of added values, for instance when companies use them to build new services and business models on them. That is why Anderl, Metternich and Weigold want to combine technologies and knowledge for sustainable industrial production on one platform in the future, which is a novelty in this country.

The planned platform “data-based production” (DataPro) is intended not only to address the design of future production chains and their connection to an IoT platform, but also to the development of data-based production environments that generate new services and business models as well as the transfer of knowledge from applied research to companies.

In doing so, the three scientists are also looking at the added value that can arise for an industrial company that not only exploits the potential of digital technologies in manufacturing to reduce costs, increase efficiency and develop new business models, but also to anchor sustainability in the company's strategy and culture.

“In the end, the newly created transparency in the production environment can influence every level of an organisation,” Weigold believes. In the future, showing responsibility for greater sustainability with a verifiable life cycle assessment should also determine how a manufacturer and its products are judged on the market. And CO2 emissions, as Anderl, Metternich and Weigold agree, have the potential to become a new currency for the economy.

In the end, the newly created transparency in the production environment can influence every level of an organisation.


A large network of partner companies were involved in the research project “Agile resource-efficient production network” (ArePron, duration 2018 until the end of 2020) in addition to the Institute of Production Management, Technology and Machine Tools (PTW) and the Departments of Computer Integrated Design (DiK) and Materials Management and Resource Economics (SuR). ArePron and its follow-on project “Resource Optimization along the Product Lifecycle“ (ReOptify, duration 01/2021 to 12/2021) are funded by the Hessian Ministry of Economics, Energy, Transport and Housing as well as by European funds (EFRE). PTW and DiK are also responsible for the planned projects ”Model-based digitisation of sustainable production networks along the product life cycle“ (DiNaPro, planned start 07/2021) and ”Platform data-based production" (DataPro, duration 04/2021 to 03/2024).

More about sustainable production

“Flexibility into energy management”: Read the next article on sustainable production .