The world of virtual commissioning.

Robert Glass, global food and beverage communications manager at ABB explores the concept of virtual commissioning and how system testing can benefit the food industry.

In 1895, pioneer of astronautic theory, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, developed the concept of the space elevator, a transportation system that would allow vehicles to travel along a cable from the Earth’s surface directly into space. While early incarnations have proven unsuccessful, scientists are still virtually testing new concepts.

Industry 4.0 continues to open up new opportunities across food and beverage manufacturing. In particular, these technologies help improve manufacturing flexibility and the speed and cost at which manufacturers are able to adapt their production to new product variations. Virtual commissioning is one of these key technologies.

What is virtual commissioning?
Virtual commissioning is the creation of a digital replica of a physical manufacturing environment. For example, a robotic picking and packing cell can be modeled on a computer, along with its automation control systems, which include robotic control systems, PLCs, variable speed drives, motors, and even safety products. This “virtual” model of the robot cell can be modified according to the new process requirements and product specifications. Once the model is programmed, every step of that cell’s operation can be tested and verified in the virtual world. If there are changes that are needed in the process automation or robot movement, these can be made on the same computer, allowing the robot to be reprogrammed, orchanges made to the variable speed drives and PLC programming. The ABB Ability™ RobotStudio is one tool that enables this type of virtual commissioning.

Once reprogrammed, the system is tested again and if it passes, it’s ready for physical deployment. This is where the real benefits become tangible. By using virtual commissioning to program and test ahead of time, less process downtime is required and manufacturers can reduce the changeover risks.

Automation programming and software errors in a system can be incredibly difficult and costly to rectify, particularly if they are found later on in the production process. Research by Austrian software testing frim Tricentis, estimated that software bugs, glitches and security failures cost businesses across the world $1.1 trillion.

To achieve the full potential of virtual commissioning, the simulation must be integrated across the entire plant process, including both the planning and engineering phase. Known as simulation-based engineering, this step is integral for the installation of reliable systems. The use of simulations in a plant is not a new concept, in fact virtual commissioning has been researched for more than a decade.

The benefits
The implementation of virtual commissioning brings with it a number of benefits. The ‘try before you buy’ concept allows plant managers to model and test the behavior of a line before making any physical changes. This saves time as the user can program the system’s automation while testing and fixing errors. The use of a digital model can also reduce risk when changing or adding processes.

One company which has seen significant improvements in production since investing in virtual commissioning is Comau, a supplier of automotive body and powertrain manufacturing and assembly technologies. Comau’s head of engineering and automation systems, Franceso Matergia, said: “We were able to reprogram 200 robots in just three days using virtual commissioning as opposed to roughly 10 weekends had the work been done on the factory floor.”

Just as you wouldn’t build a space elevator without meticulous planning and years of small scale prototyping, it’s very cost and time beneficial to build and test in a virtual environment where you can find the bugs and discover the unforeseen challenges and mitigate them without added downtime or loss of production. It’s much better to discover that bug while on the ground versus at 100,000 feet midway between the surface of the earth and that penthouse in space.

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VR means low design costs.


Jonathan Wilkins, marketing director at EU Automation discusses how virtual reality (VR) can be used to improve the design engineering process.

In 1899, Wilbur and Orville Wright, the inventors of the aeroplane, put their first model to flight. They faced several problems, including insufficient lift and deviation from the intended direction. Following a trial flight in 1901, Wilbur said to Orville that man would not fly in a thousand years. Since this occasion, good design has dispelled Wilbur’s theory.

The history of VR
With the invention of computer-aided design (CAD) in 1961, on-screen models could be explored in 3D, unlike with manual drafting. This made it easier for design engineers to visualise concepts before passing their design on for manufacturing.

From there, the technology continued to develop, until we reached cave automatic virtual environment (CAVE). This consisted of cube-like spaces with images projected onto the walls, floor and ceiling. Automotive and aerospace engineers could use CAVE to experience being inside the vehicle, without having to generate a physical prototype.

The latest advancements have introduced VR headsets, also known as head-mounted displays (HMDs) and haptic gloves. They enable users to visualise, touch and feel a virtual version of their design at a lower cost than CAVE technology would allow.

Benefitting design engineers
VR was first used in design engineering by the automotive and aerospace sectors to quickly generate product prototypes for a small cost.

Using the latest technologies, these prototypes can be visualised in real space and from different angles. Engineers can walk and interact with them, and can even make changes to the design from inside the model. This makes it possible to gain a deeper understanding of how the product works and improve the design before it is passed on for manufacturing.

Design engineers can also use VR to identify issues with a product and rectify them before a physical prototype is made. This saves time and money, but also avoids any potential problems that might arise for the end-customer, if the product is manufactured without a design error being rectified.

To study specific parts of a product and understand how it operates in greater detail, engineers often deconstruct prototypes. With physical models, this can be challenging and often leads to several prototypes being made. However, with VR they can be easily pulled apart, manipulated and returned to the original design.

The ergonomics of a product can also be analysed using VR. Decisions can then be made in the early stages of product development to ensure the final product is of the best possible standard.

Furthermore, engineers can use VR to determine whether it will be feasible and affordable to manufacture a product and to plan the manufacturing protocol. This streamlines the product development process and reduces the wasting of materials and time often made with failed manufacturing attempts.

Had VR been available in 1899, the Wright brothers would not have faced so many problems designing the world’s first aeroplane and the outcome would have been achieved much more quickly. Just imagine the designs that VR could help make a reality in the future.