Out of the comfort zone: How co-creation is shaping the future of automobile production

We’re in the year 2036. The first automobile saw the light of day exactly 150 years ago. The quietly approaching car sparkles in the sunlight. It reaches its destination without any harmful exhaust fumes, without any traffic congestion and without a driver: The research initiative ARENA2036

The research campus ARENA2036 (Active Research Environment for the Next Generation of Automotives) is an outstanding example of the work now being performed in connection with this future vision. Balluff is involved as a member of ARENA2036. The initiative – the largest research platform for mobility in Germany – bundles the expertise of scientists and leading commercial enterprises in the Stuttgart region. Founded in 2013 by seven members, ARENA2036 now includes more than 40 innovative companies, institutes and start-ups working together on the research campus that is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and the European Union. The objective is to make the automobile and its production sustainable. The key factors here are adaptability, intelligent and multi-functional forms of production coupled with new materials.

Future production

What will mobility look like in future? Driverless cars, new mobility concepts and innovative materials will not only change the way in which cars are used, but also how they are produced. The trend will be toward increasingly more individual products. Production will become much more flexible. Rigid line production, à la Henry Ford, will be a thing of the past. Cars will move autonomously from one work station to the next – monitored by new sensors. However, people will still play an important role. Highly flexible robots – so-called cobots – will work hand-in-hand with humans. Only something that is ordered individually will be produced. The entire product lifecycle will be digitally mapped and the car to be manufactured will interact with industrial robots and people during production. Alternative drive technologies will have finally taken over. A battery and fuel cells will replace the traditional drivetrain in the internal combustion engine.

Into the future with determination

The research fields are systematically geared toward future mega-trends: networked production, future mobility, digitalization and work in future. For each key topic there is a collaborative project funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF). There are also a large number of other projects, which are coupled to these collaborative projects and are dedicated to entirely new topics, such as the new mobile radio standard 5G. Seven employees and several students from Balluff are working at present on ARENA2036 projects. The reasons for Balluff’s involvement are very clear. “We are actively shaping the digital transformation of automobile production in line with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and can influence future developments,” said Roland Schaefer, vice president Innovation Management at Balluff and a member of the executive committee of the initiative. Future technologies such as 5G or digitalization of entire value-added chains cannot be managed on their own. “We, as a company, are convinced that we must collaborate in an ecosystem in order to make use of the resulting opportunities. We can use our core competence in future areas in the partner network of the initiative, thereby gaining access to cutting-edge research,” said Schäfer. “The automobile sector also occupies a special position as an innovation driver. It is a global sales market and the leading-edge technologies used in this sector are driving technological innovations in other industries.”

"Due to different perspectives, old certainties are being challenged. We are rethinking our approaches and leaving our comfort zone."

Roland Schaefer, Vice President Innovation Management at Balluff

Collaboration instead of silo thinking

Experts from different scientific and industrial disciplines are working together on new solutions and innovations under one roof in ARENA2036. The path from idea to project, and from project to transfer is, therefore, shortened substantially. The purpose of the initiative is to promote dialog between everyone involved in the value-added chain and, therefore, increase efficiency from ideation to innovation. It will also serve as an example of innovative cooperation beyond product boundaries. These are created through cooperation between innovative companies and future-oriented scientific institutions. “In its capacity as a specialist for sensor technology, Balluff is a very important member for us in our consortium. Since sensors will play an important role in regard to future development, Balluff is providing support in projects such as fluid production or the 5G model region,” said Peter Froeschle, managing director of ARENA2036.

The collaborative approach in a partner network comprising organizations ranging from start-ups and companies to research institutes is opening up entirely new paths of cooperation for the sensor and automation specialist. “No silo thinking, every partner under one roof, short development cycles and intensive exchanges – i.e. an incubator for real innovation,” said Schaefer. “Due to different perspectives, old certainties are being challenged. We are rethinking our approaches and leaving our comfort zone.”

FlexCAR – 3-D printing on the road to the shop floor

“Production in the future will be modular and mutable. This is why it will be absolutely necessary to have all the information for the production process at one’s disposal at all times,” predicted Albert Dorneich, research coordinator at Balluff. “As far as we are concerned, this means that the requirements relating to our sensors will also change. Since sensors will play an even more important role in future, Balluff is supporting the initiative in a large number of projects: In the FlexCAR Project, Balluff is working together with Bosch and the Institute for Aircraft Construction on the development of new additive production processes for partially individualized injection-molding parts. On-site standard processes will be supplemented by individual components produced by means of additive 3-D printing processes. The advantages: New complex forms can be created without using geometry-based tools. Balluff is contributing its knowledge in the area of traceability of individual parts through RFID technology and is jointly developing software for visualizing the production flow.

Fluid production – more freedom in manufacturing

In the Fluid Production Project, Balluff is collaborating with the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA) and Bär Automation in order to develop several prototypes for a reconfigurable sensor unit with suitable software. This is based on the combination of different sensor technologies such as radar sensors, photoelectric sensors and condition monitoring sensors, as well as industrial cameras with modern machine vision. Fluid production makes workshop production more flexible because the production set-up is adapted contextually depending on the job order, e.g. the order to be produced defines the production process, the order of the work steps or the position of the work tools rather than a rigid process.

DIREKT – Sensors from the printer

In order to manufacture high-performance fiber composite components, the production processes must also be developed further. In the DIREKT Project, Balluff, the Media University, the Institute for Aircraft Construction, and the Cikoni start-up are jointly developing a digitally reconfigurable production environment for lightweight carbon fiber-reinforced construction materials. The researchers are using ‘printed’ strain sensors to continuously monitor the pre-forming process. They are also utilizing artificial intelligence methods in order to evaluate sensor and simulation data and optimize processes. New edge analytics concepts will be combined here with the established IO-Link communication system.

Although the driverless car in still in its infancy in 2021, it is clear that mobility will undergo radical change. Initiatives such as ARENA2036 are creating a platform in this respect to shape the future through collaboration.


The highly flexible research platform for mobility and production in the future.

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