Enthusiasm for new solutions is in Optima’s engineering DNA. Everything that can help simplify processes, improve results for customers, and further increase system performance is put to the test and, where necessary, adapted or simply invented in-house. This attitude results in a high degree of openness to new technologies, and therefore to the digital world, which has been a feature of Optima since the 1970s. That said, not every innovation that now seems imperative was met with undivided approval from the beginning.
One evening in November 1981, at Optima’s headquarters in Schwäbisch Hall, Hans Bühler, who had been with the company since 1980, braced himself for a lengthy conversation as he entered the office of his father, Max Bühler. Max Bühler, owner and Managing Director for over 35 years, had been gradually handing over his responsibilities to his son, but he was still very involved in decision making.
Clearly, an investment of 250,000 Deutschmarks (DM) was a lot of money, especially when it involves an investment whose potential applications are still completely new.
The light in the executive office stayed on later than usual, but after an intense discussion, the decision was made exactly as “Junior” had recommended. The new HP “mini-computer system” would be purchased! It provided more capacity than all the systems available at that time and already ran on a Unix operating system, offering multi-user and multi-task operations. It would help Optima to become a market leader, especially when developing machine controls for specific customer requirements. It was a new milestone in digitalization for Optima, though it wasn’t called digitalization at this time, but nevertheless was already in full swing.
A few years earlier, in 1976, the company had experimented with its own computers under the name “OptimaDataEnterprise” (ODE). “ODE 30” could be connected to the checkweigher of the production machine and record its data. Up to 30 checkweighers could be analyzed and controlled. Optima was ahead of its time, offering a classic “Industry 4.0” function, decades before this label was invented. Today, these functions are part of MES and Scada systems.
Starting in 1980, the commercial departments received “Olivetti” typewriters. These typewriters included a function that was able to save text modules and to speed up processes. This new era also offered new opportunities for the manufacturing process: A large scheduling board showing a weekly overview (feared as much as loved by the staff) was replaced by a HP 3000 computer. This literally marked the dawn of a new era, it would not only be easier to plan activities, but also automate purchasing, sales, and human resource processes, too.
Progress in the machine platform, was also imminent and was gathering pace. In 1981, the first machines (checkweighers) built in series, with microcomputers conquered the market. In 1983, packaging machines were converted to PLC control standards.
By 1984, the first complete computer system for purchasing, warehouse management, production planning and controlling, as well as the service departments became available. In 1985, the first Optima custom machines already had servo controls.
Although the changes in day-to-day business were far-reaching, digital progress was also expensive, as bits and bytes were still precious goods. For example, as part of a special Christmas promotion, Hewlett-Packard was offering a hard drive with 400 MB storage capacity for DM 70,000 – instead of the regular DM 100,000. This was a great deal!
Four years later, a CAD-enabled computer still cost DM 120,000 and it would take some time to pay for. In addition, intensive training was required. A year went by before the designers were able to consistently create their first circuit diagrams on the computer. Another six months later, the last drawing board finally disappeared and was likely accompanied by one last nostalgic look from some of the employees.
Hans Bühler, who became Optima’s Managing Director in 1988, remained the driving force behind the changes. Thus, he set the course for continuous modernization for all areas of the company at the right time.
James H. is very pleased: Just two weeks after the first meeting, the Technical Manager of a major US pharmaceutical company inspects the first concept of his new filling system for a new, high-quality hemophilia drug. His first impression is a positive one. Optima’s experts have thought of everything. One or two questions are answered during the discussion and just one item needs to be slightly modified to satisfy the requirements. Overall, a more than respectable first draft.
The meeting to discuss the design of the new machine was held completely remotely, supported by a so-called digital twin. This is now a proven method, helping Optima customers save time and money right from the start – just one of the many aspects of ongoing digitalization.
The same applies to sometimes spectacular methods of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality. At Optima, these have always been more than mere “trade show gimmicks”; they have been an integral part of design and planning for years. VR and AR are becoming increasingly important for maintenance, service, and training.
“These tools are opening up new opportunities to support customer personnel directly with regard to machine operations or modifications – the term “user experience” being key. Our objective is to make it as easy as possible for operators to run our machinery effectively – regardless of their training, background, or language”, says Dr. Stefan König, Managing Director of Optima Packaging Group GmbH.
What is known as virtualization represents a completely different kind of digital “simulation” – additional software that simulates the previous hardware to keep the application programs operational in the new hardware.
People coming together through digital worlds supported by VR glasses is one of the most futuristic aspects of digital progress. Often digitalization also means improvements of details. For instance, as part of the production process at the customer’s site, Optima can make major contributions to improving effectiveness and safety even further.
Dr. Georg Pfeifer, Managing Director of Optima Nonwovens: “Our digital solutions give customers a production overview, allowing them to identify potential for improvements; they can access the system at any time, boost availability, and get support quickly and directly when needed.”
Comprehensive digitalization solutions have been provided to Optima’s customers in order to improve production and have been grouped under the term “IPAS” – Intelligent Production Assistance Services. IPAS is a complete package of smart services that target the use of digital technologies to resolve individual customer challenges, depending on the application.
The process of machine changeover between individual production runs is relatively prone to error. The objective here is to take the operator by the hand with various digital tools, like the “Changeover Scan”.
The customer’s workforce can scan format parts that require changing by using a DMC code to install them correctly. This must then be confirmed on the HMI (machine control), minimizing the risk of installing incorrect parts and therefore, machine downtime.
Cameras also play an increasingly important role – the machine interior is seen when installed in the correct location. High-speed cameras provide clarity when reviewing recordings. Critical processes are analyzed precisely during machine setup or in the event of a malfunction.
Fewer errors, greater productivity. This is how targeted digitalization helps Optima customers in their production processes every day. However, there are some major challenges – for example, how do you link the huge amount of production-related data stemming from different systems correctly? Optima has a future-oriented answer to this as well – OPAL (see the information box).
OPAL Process Management
This software, specially developed in-house by Optima, links the ERP level (enterprise resource planning – higher-level business management processes) with the manufacturing level and records production data, including overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).
Multiple machines and system components can be connected across one or several lines in a horizontal network, which enables users to organize complex production processes more efficiently and more reliably. Like many other digital technologies, OPAL is part of IPAS.
However, the potential uses for digital technologies and solutions are far from being exhausted with their utilization for machine designs or the production process. They also provide valuable services, for example, when it comes to ensuring the safe, efficient operation of systems over the long term.
Much of the data generated during production can also be used for predictive maintenance.
The maintenance guide “WeMaintain” offers planning of maintenance cycles at an early stage, reliably, and easy to perform. Any spare part packages required are either provided on a cycle basis or state-of-the-art software tools monitor the machinery and indicate the start of wear and tear. Step-by-step digital instructions guide the user quickly and safely through the maintenance process. This provides customers with an “all-around trouble-free package” for their maintenances – similar to a personal car maintenance schedule.
Predictive maintenance can also use Optima’s “Condition Monitoring System” to monitor the machine’s condition based on live data. Using algorithms developed on the customer line, the system automatically reports wear levels at an early stage and calculates the expected wear limits and times. This increases the transparency of status changes in the machine, and hence system availability, planning accuracy, and production quality. In the near future, the system will be able to request parts automatically, with no intervention by maintenance crews. Additionally, videos and augmented reality will accompany installation.
Most of all, the basic prerequisite for all of this is to ensure the highest level of data protection and security. This is of paramount importance for all Optima business divisions and includes cybersecurity on the highest level.
According to Dr. Benjamin Häfner, Director of Industrial IT at Optima, it is crucial to set up the systems in close collaboration with the customer and to match it with the specific network structures. This is accomplished by working closely with the user’s IT experts and means that all interfaces are systematically updated and refined to the highest level of security.
The most recent example is the new VPN solution developed by Optima in collaboration with cybersecurity specialist Lancom Systems. The high-security solution monitors VPN connections, uses a firewall to protect the machine network at the customer’s site, and is remarkably user-friendly.
Along with cyber security, data integrity is another top-of-mind issue – this means data is stored only once (not repeatedly), is securely saved, and cannot be tempered with.
Pioneering: Comprehensive Scientific Process Engineering (CSPE)
With CSPE, Optima Pharma has a groundbreaking, comprehensive technical and scientific process that shortens the time to production start-up by using a wide range of different measures. It combines proven fast-track concepts and processes like digital engineering, simulation, virtual reality, and integrated FATs. It reduces time-consuming activities to a minimum and permits “media fill”, i.e. the proof that sterile products can be safely filled on the finished filling system quickly.
CSPE covers a wide range of tools that act as catalysts from the concept phase to the operation and modernization phase. Finally, what takes place in the CSPE Center is not digital or virtual at all: an integrated FAT (iFAT) that merits its name – thanks to the provision of media such as process heat, demineralized water, and compressed air.
CSPE – particularly proven during the pandemic.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and its strict travel restrictions, iFATs have already taken place with the help of virtual technology. Everyone involved was able to be “live” during the checkout without the need to travel. It saved valuable time. All CSPE instruments are designed to achieve the shortest possible time to market. Depending on the project, it can reduce the project time by up to six months. Primarily, customers benefit from it, and so do patients. After all, every week that a newly approved drug is on the market earlier is significant. The knowledge gained by Optima Pharma’s planners and engineers with every CSPE cycle, cannot be underestimated, since it optimizes processes and speeds up commissioning. Customers will use this approach more and more, as a standard process in the future.
Whether it is design, training, production, or service related, at Optima, digitalization is always purpose-driven and goal-oriented. It is part of a comprehensive strategy known at Optima as “Total Care”.
Dr. Stefan König: “This term refers to our complete package of products and solutions that are focused on supporting our customers and their processes. Support may be needed in a whole host of different areas and goes beyond commissioning with the provision of data collection tools, process data simulations, and reliability evaluations; it also concerns production with production planning tools, condition monitoring and digitally supported maintenance, such as spare parts and purchasing systems, as well as planning tools.” The objective is to provide comprehensive support to customers in literally every phase of the machine’s life cycle. Digital solutions are becoming more important than ever.
From the calculator to independent communicating systems, from the “personal computer” to comprehensive networking, from the drawing board to the shared inspection of entire systems in virtual space, and all this from different continents: Digitalization is one of the factors for Optima’s success. What about the future of digitalization? Hans Bühler, who has been driving and accompanying the process for decades, has no doubt. “Sure, some things are already in place, but we still have much more to do.”
In January 2022, for instance, a new PLM system was introduced worldwide as a central component of engineering in the design departments. Allowing the various IT systems and disciplines to be even more interconnected, is the prerequisite for system modularization and an important basis for Optima’s ongoing digitalization program.
IT expert Dr. Benjamin Häfner clearly states that data will continue to gain even more importance, in order to manage the most complex processes. In addition, artificial intelligence will be used increasingly as part of this process. “The objective is always to use existing potential to achieve the best process efficiency for our customers,” stressed Häfner. Of course, the new machine interface that Optima presented just in time for its 100th anniversary, also meets this goal.