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Digital twins make better factories

Simulation tools create a ‘digital twin’ that shows how a new factory or production line will look and behave before it is even constructed. Advances in 3D manufacturing simulation and controls are helping manufacturing to cut costs and boost performance, says Fernando Ubis of Visual Components in Finland.           

The key to efficient production is to avoid downtime. That means testing and checking everything before going live, something called ‘virtual commissioning’. Using computer-aided design and the latest 3D simulation and visualisation tools, the customer can see the new line and how it performs.

“This twin is a near-perfect facsimile of how the new adaptive automated system is going to function,” says Ubis whose company led the Eurostars project FAMUS, with support from Profactor in Austria, particularly in control standards. The 31-month project studied the requirements and specifications for an integrated software toolkit and dashboard for simulating adaptive manufacturing systems – the nerve centre of modern factories today.

“Virtual commissioning helps a company dry run the full requirement set across a growing spectrum of parameters, from concept to tooling to deployment,” says Ubis. The virtual twin can test different scenarios and save up to 50% off typical engineering commissioning costs because it can identify complex problems earlier in the design process, such as a bottleneck from packaging to loading. “It can help define protocols for operators who can also be trained to run the new line before it is even built.”

The alternative solution we found took more work, but now we’re ahead of the curve.

Traditionally, these tools have only been available to large players, led by the automotive and aerospace sectors. But 3D simulation and adaptive automation – where operators and machines or systems work in tandem – are becoming more common in a wider range of factory settings.

This opens the door for smaller firms to capture new markets. Visual Components started out doing predefined simulation solutions for a small set of industry applications. Now, it has a suite of flexible tools suited to customers in different sectors, from machine builders to medical labs and logistics, and covering myriad tasks involved in new plants and lines (sales and marketing, control engineering, application development, robotics, etc.). And most important, they are easy to use!

“The vision and inspiration for a new production line can come from anyone,” notes Ubis. “That’s why our software is designed to require no technical expertise to use it.” 

More than they bargained for

Visual Components and Profactor teamed up because of complementary skills and previous success working together in EU-funded projects. For FAMUS, the key criteria for cooperating was a strong “commercialisation angle”. And, here, they got more than they bargained for.

Facing what looked like a dead end with some initial lines regarding the application of the control standards, FAMUS had to start over with new lines of research and develop the most suitable solutions targeting end customers. “We didn’t give up when we realised the first ideas were not viable. The alternative solution we found took more work, but now we’re ahead of the curve,” reveals Ubis. Smaller companies have to be more flexible and open, he says, to meet the needs of new sectors faster than larger players in simulation.

“We recorded a 10% increase in sales following commercial launch of the tools prepared in FAMUS, and I’d expect that to keep going up in line with global market forecasts for simulation and analysis software, which experts predict will grow 11.9% annually over the next five years,” confirms Ubis.

“We’re seeing higher adoption rates of factory simulation and virtual commissioning technologies by manufacturers,” says Ubis. “Today’s global, competitive environment demands that manufacturers explore opportunities to reduce costs and downtime. Our technology helps with that.”  says Ubis.

That makes a big difference in the simulation business, especially as data-driven and digital solutions merge ever-closer with manufacturing under Industry 4.0, and when breaking into new verticals.