Text Ulrich Kläsener, Birgit Hagelschuer ––– Photography
Lenze, a German family-run company based in Hameln that provides automation solutions for the mechanical engineering sector, was to undergo a complete transformation from 2016 onwards. Back then, as Gerd Schüler reveals, the management team gave him a simple task: “Making our frontend simpler and more competitive so that customers could integrate our products and digital services into their workflow as a matter of course.” There was just one “tiny” snag – some of the company’s products and the associated master data were totally unsuitable for digitalisation. “I immediately realised we would need to take a new approach and question everything,” explains Schüler, Senior Vice President Process and Quality Management.
And brilliant minds at the company achieved exactly that – not by transcending technological barriers, but by completely removing them from the equation. They did so by developing a new digital solution portfolio and simply creating new master data from scratch.
EVERYTHING IN THE CLOUD
The result is a digital workflow that is fit for the future. It covers everything from configuration and ordering, and from engineering and manufacturing, to the operation of Lenze products. Instead of using on-premise solutions with limited storage and computing capacity, everything now takes place in the cloud. Lenze has switched to using selected units of information with stored rule sets instead of static product data management that involves continuously preparing new data sets and maintaining countless variants. Not being dependent on the platform solutions of individual software providers makes it possible to utilise a variety of target systems as desired and required, and to “orchestrate” information intelligently.
ALL INFORMATION CREATED FROM SCRATCH
When it came to the new start at Lenze, the IT infrastructure was not the primary focus. “There’s no lack of IT. You can buy anything you want. IT solutions are just tools,” says Schüler. He goes on to explain that suppliers and customers only get faster when data is understood as a standard in structural terms and reused extensively. That meant having to recreate, reorganise and restructure technical product data and SAP master data and make it as streamlined as possible.
BUILDING BLOCK CONCEPT WITH INTEGRATED RULE SETS
But how do you approach something like that? Schüler explains: “Simply breaking down a drive unit into technical units, making them small and changing the way they are managed on a structural level speeds things up. Once I have my Lego bricks, as it were, I can quickly reassemble the product data in different ways for a whole range of target systems.” If you combine that with rule sets and coordinate it with variant configurations, product data can be created in seconds to help customers with their decisions.
“As the provider, we ourselves no longer need to create master data – we actually just administer and manage the small data blocks and rule sets. The rest happens automatically,” continues Schüler – and it’s faster than before. Whereas it used to take an average of two hours to generate a data set, this has now been cut to just two seconds and involves no manual intervention. Every month, customers generate an average of around 10,000 new product variants from a range of solutions comprising 1032 – or 100 quintillion – technically buildable data sets.
“That means there are more possibilities for customising Lenze products than there are stars in the Milky Way,” reveals Schüler. “So, in principle, we’re moving towards infinity. As a manufacturer of variants rather than a mass producer, it therefore also made less sense for us to store everything in the Eplan Data Portal in the traditional way with fixed material numbers. For one thing, the potential product variety makes it technically impossible and, for another, it would be of very limited benefit and is therefore not worthwhile,” he adds.
THE SECRET STAR
The Easy Product Finder (EPF) now generates the new component data. It’s the secret star of the various Easy Engineering Tools. The EPF is an online tool that can be used to search products, configure solutions, request quotes and place orders for Lenze products. It is fed with technical data, including stored rule sets.
That paves the way for an infinite number of variants, without having to repeatedly prepare new data sets and maintain them. Complete Eplan data sets that can be created in seconds give customers extra added value. To remove any dependence on server-based platforms and limited hardware, Lenze has transferred EPF operation to a cloud.
The configurator is operated in the cloud of German Edge Cloud (GEC), a sister company of Eplan. Another advantage of the cloud solution is that Lenze is networking its products with the rest of the world.
FROM ONE CLOUD TO ANOTHER
The EPF is incorporated into the Eplan Data Portal, which contains fully comprehensive article data and the product catalogues of numerous component manufacturers. A single click is all it takes for anyone coming across Lenze solutions to automatically jump from one cloud to another – that is to say from Eplan to the EPF environment on the Lenze website.
“The direct link between our product configurator and the new Eplan platform means customers very quickly find the product they’re looking for. There’s no longer any need to trawl through long lists, and customers soon home in on an appropriate article,” explains Bernd Spiegel, Director of Team Processes and Data at Lenze. Another advantage is far easier maintenance of the configurator content on the Eplan platform. The EPF also makes life much simpler for design engineers, because complete Eplan data packets (EDZ file) can be generated for every equipment variant.
SPEEDING UP WORKFLOWS
Schüler refers to the provision of component data that can be used to generate multiple variants as “a basic requirement of our customers.” He explains that the Eplan data sets therefore need to be available for engineering prior to or when selling the relevant products. “You will otherwise drown in costs or lose customers,” he emphasises. “Data is used and combined to reach better decisions with a view to lowering life cycle costs.
That requires a precise description of the asset. Eplan is the best environment for this, because the circuit diagram maps every relationship between all the assets in a machine,” says Schüler, explaining why this is so important to Lenze. “Numerous leading mechanical engineering companies make use of our services. They simulate the commissioning, operation, optimisation and maintenance of a machine before it even physically exists,” he continues, adding that it’s not just digital twins that are needed for the various engineering environments, but also accompanying services that speed up the workflows. This includes data exchange formats that can be used directly in the customer’s process environment.
Lenze has achieved a technological breakthrough with the EPF. “By the end of 2023, we will therefore be incorporating all the ranges of our entire portfolio into the EPF,” says Spiegel. “These days, all I’m picking are lots of small blocks of information and their rule sets, because it can all be tested and checked and is much simpler. That’s why we’re now so fast,” he continues, adding that the impact on in-house operations has also been huge. Customer configurations and orders are generated automatically in the EPF via an interface to SAP parts lists and work schedules. The principle is, he says, always the same: “Services are based on information keys that we move back and forth between various target systems. It doesn’t matter what is located in which cloud – things only seem to get more complex. In reality, they don’t.”
THE NEW “COLLEAGUES” AT EPLAN
All this is achieved using a cloud solution. “We really have found a robust architecture. In any case, we didn’t want licences – we wanted availabilities. That’s the right strategy at the right time,” says Schüler. By using the GEC hosting solution, Lenze has not just eliminated the frustrating limitations of hardware and software, but has also placed end-to-end implementation of the EPF in particular in experienced hands. “It’s worked exceptionally well, because Eplan has the domain knowledge for generating the CAE data. The experts know how things can ultimately be processed,” explains Schüler.
“Eplan has achieved many successes and is some way ahead of the competition. Customising, training and response times – everything is great. The fact that our Eplan contacts now feel more like colleagues is far from typical. It’s remarkable!” adds Spiegel.