A lot of medium-sized companies either do not or only occasionally use virtual commissioning in engineering, the reason being that it is difficult to quantify the real benefits of these technologies. On closer inspection, however, it quickly becomes apparent that immense savings are possible in all areas—sometimes several million euros per year.
Virtual commissioning can hold a lot of potential. Problems and possible improvements can be identified early in the development process and can thus often be avoided altogether. Expensive repairs of the actual machine and subsequent customer complaints are therefore reduced to a minimum, saving both time and money. Furthermore, for employees in particular, this means that they have more time for their actual tasks if they do not have to deal with time-consuming and often complicated amendments, sometimes at the customer's site.
What Is Virtual Commissioning
Virtual commissioning is part of every successful machine development process these days. By that we mean testing and changing construction data, planning data, and control software in advance with a virtual system. Only after a successful virtual commissioning, and once changes and optimizations are carried out virtually, does the transfer to the real machine begin. Errors are therefore recognized early in the development process and can be eliminated in the early development phases. All of this happens before these errors could lead to enormous additional expenditure in terms of costs and time.
A physics-based 3D simulation serves as the basis for virtual commissioning, which simulates the real behavior of the machine as a virtual model, ideally in real time. In this way, an entire system can be mapped, individual machines or just certain machine elements. This makes it possible to visualize, in particular, the interplay between the individual machines and more complex collaborations with, for example, robots or material flows.
From today's perspective, virtual commissioning combines all the challenges that arise during development, such as changing customer requirements or changes in construction. Even technologies that are not yet fully developed, supplier bottlenecks, or the lack of communication between those involved in the development, can be recognized and avoided at an early stage with the help of virtual commissioning. There is no need for time-consuming changes at the end of the development process. Also, problems on the real machine that could not have been foreseen beforehand no longer occur. Furthermore, projects that cannot be implemented can be stopped early and then adapted.
The software component of machines is steadily increasing these days. It is therefore possible to represent the interaction of mechanics, electronics, and software with the help of virtual commissioning at any point in the development process. With virtual commissioning, companies can counteract the increasing cost pressure, significantly reduce material waste during machine start-up, and avoid production interruptions due to inadequately tested software.
Virtual Commissioning through Simulation
Virtual commissioning can be carried out with the help of simulation. The simulation software should be at the center of the development as a cross-divisional platform to verify the current state of development at all times and check for feasibility with other areas. Hereby the mechanical, electrical, and software departments all use the same models simultaneously, which they work on in their native development environment, furthering the development together and immediately able to test the interaction using the simulation. This way, the current state of development in mechatronics development is tested in an interdisciplinary and continuous manner during the earliest phases of the process—in the shape of continuous virtual commissioning, taken in small steps.
In order for simulation software to be used profitably as a cross-departmental platform, it is necessary that the simulation has a stable bidirectional interface to Inventor. This is well implemented with the simulation software iPhysics. The big advantage here is that changes to the simulated model are also immediately available in the CAD system, thus eliminating the need to change the model redundantly. By connecting various controls, drive and robot kinematics, these can already be tested during virtual commissioning under real conditions and, if necessary, adapted.
Using the Potential of Virtual Commissioning
Using virtual commissioning optimally can have positive effects on almost all areas of the company. Practice has proved that the areas of productivity, as well as quality and the time factor in particular, have tremendous potential that would remain unused if it was not for the correct use of virtual commissioning.
With regards to productivity, early safeguarding of machine concepts and machine behavior reduce the risk for both human and machine. Hereby, the coordination effort due to the improved communication as well as the effort for troubleshooting through early knowledge can be drastically reduced. With the help of virtual commissioning, the optimal program can be developed early in the process, as different variants can be run through quickly and easily. Productivity is also increased because of greater employee satisfaction, as they can now focus on their actual tasks. With the help of virtual commissioning and the digital twin that is being created in parallel with development, training for customers is possible in parallel with development on the virtual machine. Fast conversion to new products can also be tested in advance on the virtual model and implemented quickly during operation.
With regard to quality, companies can benefit from a significant reduction in quality costs, as all machine elements with the software to be installed have already been tested at an early stage. Ultimately, the company is able to deliver higher-quality and more sophisticated machines to the customer. As a result, the customer will not have to deal with subsequent rework, corrections, and modifications. Even during the developmental phase, individual steps can be coordinated with the customer at any point and approvals can be discussed using the digital twin. The presence of the digital twin enables problems to be identified quickly even when the machine is at a standstill. Furthermore, solutions that were virtually tested in advance can thus be transferred to the actual machine.
With regard to time, the significant shortening of the overall development time as well as the associated adherence to delivery dates speak to the use of virtual commissioning. Due to the parallel engineering in particular, the PLC programming, for example, is moved forward, which results in the throughput time being shortened by 70%. The time for troubleshooting and rectification of potential errors is also significantly reduced by the virtual commissioning and the digital twin. Employees are able to spend less time at the customer's site, as many questions can already be answered with the help of the digital twin or the virtual model. Employees are therefore also able to focus on new projects much sooner.
Using the Enormous Savings Potential: A Practical Example
In order to actually quantify this potential, an inventory was first carried out at an exemplary machine manufacturer. Process indicators such as throughput times, complaint and error rates, KPIs for ongoing projects, and personnel costs were determined. A customer-specific concept with a set of rules for the use of simulation was then developed, showing how virtual commissioning can be optimally anchored and implemented within the company.
One year after the start of the project, these key figures were determined once again and thus the savings achieved were quantified. If you now compare the determined key figures with and without virtual commissioning, it becomes apparent that in this example the customer has achieved savings of around 2.5 million euros through the complete implementation accompanying the development process. Around two-thirds of these costs can be attributed to the increase in employee productivity, mainly generated by the early validation of concepts and the avoidance of unnecessary activities such as trouble shooting. 26% of the savings were achieved by improving quality and measuring the reduction in quality costs through the decrease in customer complaints and error messages. 8% were due to the savings based on the increased adherence to delivery dates and the reduction of contractual penalties. This calculation shows that the relatively low expenses for virtual commissioning and the additional employee capacities are offset by large increases in efficiency in many areas of the company.
Virtual commissioning can also help to reduce invisible waste in the processes and thus noticeably improve productivity, adherence to delivery dates, and quality. However, this potential can only be fully exploited if virtual commissioning is fully and deeply implemented in the processes.
After studying business administration, Beate Freyer worked at BMW AG in the research and development department. In 2002 she switched to the management consultancy Porsche Consulting and at the end of 2005 to ROI Management Consulting AG. In 2009 Beate Freyer, together with Dr. Georg Wünsch, founded machineering, which they have since expanded into an agile, innovative company.