Manufacturers are increasingly aware of the importance of digital transformation, but those looking to adopt digital strategies are usually faced with a range of different solutions to both improve efficiency and reduce risks on the factory floor. This makes it difficult to know which technologies work best for their operations.
Many are exploring the benefits provided by simulation software to test new processes in a risk-free environment, and virtual commissioning and digital twins are two of the most frequently used terms in the context of manufacturing innovation. Both however have their distinct differences.
Understanding the contrast between these technologies, but also appreciating how they work together is vital to ensuring that they match the use cases of the business. This is even more crucial as competition increases with rivals taking steps forward in their digital transformation roadmaps.
Any major manufacturing equipment involves a commissioning process, which is where the control systems are linked to the mechanical systems. Within this, complex sequences of signals need to flow logically and meet strict timing requirements. It then inevitably takes time to resolve the issues that arise in making these systems communicate with each other, leading to project delays.
This is where virtual commissioning comes in. This allows for the control logic and signals that will ultimately enable completion of the system controls to be fully simulated. An example of where this is particularly valuable is with a packing solution, which may include a variety of conveyers with robots collecting boxes and placing them on pallets. Testing this process as many times virtually before the physical solution is built in the real world is critical to minimise risks, and this can include programming, sensors and the signals to expect.
With this ability, virtual commissioning is a crucial tool for change management. If one part of a manufacturing process needs to be altered, but professionals within the business are unsure of the impact it will have on operations, verifying a new scenario in this way allows for smarter and faster decisions. By being able to avoid costly future mistakes, manufacturers can save time, money, reduce risk and encourage concurrent engineering.
In providing an environment where risk-free testing can be completed, virtual commissioning is arguably the most important part of the simulation process and is particularly beneficial to system builders and integrators due to its ability to shorten a project’s timeframe. Commissioning can begin in parallel with construction as opposed to after the physical build, which also allows operators and maintenance personnel to begin training earlier.
In contrast, digital twin technology can only be implemented with hardware, meaning that it’s ideal for use once a physical system has been put in place with the help of virtual commissioning. It’s essentially an active model of the physical setup that’s used in two main ways. The first is monitoring. In the case of an engineer that wants to quickly see the current state of the factory floor, a detailed replica of the environment is shown instead of just a table of data. Additionally, if production is halted due to an error, the digital twin can highlight the cause at the time it has occurred.
The second application of digital twins is the improvement in communication. The global nature of manufacturing means that decision-makers are likely to be geographically distant from the factory. Where board meetings need to take place via video conferencing, a digital twin gives every professional the opportunity to view the factory processes in detail and ensure that everything is working optimally.
To summarise, virtual commissioning allows for value when building and integrating complex new manufacturing system, while digital twins are best for monitoring, predicting and improving the performance of an existing system. When considering the relationship between both, virtual commissioning needs to be the starting point to enable verification of a digital twin solution, if the end goal of the manufacturer is to ultimately utilise a digital twin.
The move towards Industry 5.0 and focus on augmenting human expertise with effective technology in the manufacturing environment is shining a spotlight on virtual commissioning and digital twins. While they both use virtual representations of physical systems to save time, enable more effective training and identify improvement opportunities, the key to effectively using both is applying them to the right areas of the organisation based on the use case and job role of those leveraging them. This will give manufacturers the best opportunity to utilise all aspects of simulation technology effectively in their digital transformation strategies.
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