Virtual Factory- A Technique Whose Time Has Come

by James P. Tate on August 23, 2017

In all the excitement and dreaming about the impact of computer software and virtual reality in the production world there has been one quiet project that could measurably enhance the use of computer software on the manufacturing process.

In a recent article in The Economist magazine (July 15, 2017 issue, page 58) a real factory in Germany was gaining competitive advantage by using a virtual twin to mirror the factory operation.  The Siemens factory in Amberg, Bavaria manufactures computer control systems for industrial factories.  The annual plant output is 15,000 units in over a 1,000 different varieties.  Opened in 1989 with an initial output of 1500 units, this factory has achieved its improvements without an increase in floor space and virtually no increase in work force size.

These improvements have come by improving the production process by first testing the improvements on a virtual twin of the factory.  This digital twin is identical in every respect to the actual physical factory with simulated production machinery, simulated workers and process flow paths.  Once an improvement is tested and refined in the digital twin it is installed in the real factory.  By testing the improvements in a digital form, kinks are worked out, adjustments are made and a benchmark is set for the actual factory.

This concept of a digital model of a factory or component was first utilized in the NASA space program in the 1960s.  Models were first build and tested in a realistic setting to determine if the designs would work, before building the final model.  The Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC was built using this concept.  First, a scale model of the planned museum and its displays was created.  Using this model, space constraints and viewing angles were measured to prove, or correct, the architectural plans.  The project manager for this museum was astronaut Michael Collins from the space program.  He was employing the same technique he saw NASA use in developing space vehicles.

In addition to Siemens, General Electric and Dassault Systemes (competitors of Siemens) are employing this digital modeling of production systems for customers in aerospace, automotive, heavy machinery, pharmaceuticals and consumer products.

A major advantage of this concept is the increased speed in which new products can be brought to market.  Product design iterations can be quickly tested without having to physical reconfigure a production line.  The final version of the production flow can yield information on how to remotely monitor long production lines and provide after-market service and planned maintenance for the machinery.  By adding on artificial intelligence capability, the virtual production line can provide on-going information on the wear and tear of machinery to maintenance personnel.

By adding sensors to the machinery, data can be analyzed in the digital twin to justify design and material changes.  Formula 1 racing teams use a digital program to analyze data from the racing car as it is racing to identify the hundreds of changes to be made to a car between races.  The jet engines from GE have a digital twin.  Data from the plane’s engines in flight is uploaded to the twin to analyze potential engine failures up to two weeks in advance of a visual inspection.

In the manufacturing world time is money!  By reducing the time to design, test and install production improvements or piece part problems, a company can gain an advantage over its competitors and gain market share.

Isn’t it time for your company to look into this concept?

Previous post:

Next post: