I’m James and I’m a team leader at Siemens in Manchester, who provides customers with pre-sales and post-sales support for factory automation, motion control and digital tools. I worked closely with TrakRap, a packaging engineering company in the fast-moving consumer goods sector, during their digital transition, and here are some of my insights.
One of the most exciting new developments that has taken place during my career has been the development of virtual commissioning and digital twins. From the industrial revolution onwards, the way that OEMs would create new equipment would be to plan it on paper (and later CAD programs) then build a physical prototype. If the prototype failed then they went back to the drawing board.
Today, creating a digital twin of a new machine allows for virtual commissioning, in which digital simulation tools can validate equipment before it is built, allowing you to confirm that it will work as expected. Machine development previously proceeded through a sequence of mechanical design, electrical design and automation, and an undetected error at one stage could have knock-on effects on the next. With virtual commissioning you can complete all three stages in parallel, reducing commissioning time and risk.
The value of virtual commissioning
As a small company, with around a dozen employees when they began the project, TrakRap didn’t have the time or money to go through multiple rounds of prototypes and testing. With any new and innovative technology, whoever gets to market first essentially ‘owns’ that technology, and that can be a huge benefit to an SME. Virtual commissioning enabled TrakRap to reduce their time to market by 40% and development costs by 30% – major time and cost savings for a small company.
Working closely with TrakRap, we brought together the technology and expertise to virtually create the prototypes they needed. By working with the University of Bradford’s Centre for Advanced Materials Engineering and the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), we were able to create kinematic models of the plastic film used in an exploratory cold wrapping process – aiming to reduce the consumption of energy and material. This was coupled with the challenge of packaging aerosols, which are notoriously difficult to pack because they have a small base and a high centre of gravity, so they fall over easily. It was therefore critical to test and optimise the process in the virtual world so that the first machine built was fit for purpose, and not a prototype.
There is a digital twin solution for all levels of virtual commissioning, from modelling entire production lines with Technomatix Plant Simulation to using NX Mechatronic Concept Designer, as TrakRap did, to model a production machine. For a project with a heavy physics component like the TrakRap project, the Simcenter Amesim system can be integrated into NX Mechatronic to virtually assess a kinematic model of the machine. At the final stage, a system like PLCSIM ensures that your automation controls function correctly.
Getting out what you put in
A digital twin can be as simple or as complex as it needs to be. When Siemens, TrakRap, the Manufacturing Technology Centre and Bradford University worked together on the digital twin of the cold-wrapping machine, the physical processes being modelled were complex, so we had to put a great deal of time and effort into creating a digital twin that was extremely precise. If all we were doing was validating automation code then we could build a ‘digital twin’ from cubes, spheres and cylinders.
At the beginning of the process, companies have to define which challenges they need the digital twin to solve. In TrakRap’s case it was packaging tricky aerosols.
This is what digital twins should be about – focusing on specific pain points. You don’t need to replicate an entire machine down to the millimetre to solve your problems.
Since they used digital twin technology to virtually commission the cold wrapping project, TrakRap weren’t just able to bring a new machine to market quicker than they would have through conventional development processes. They were able to create a 21st-century product that puts them at the forefront of their industry.