The global digitalisation trend dictates the adoption of cutting-edge technologies, including Virtual Commissioning (VC) to enhance efficiency, optimise the use of resources and time, and to improve production. VC is effective predominantly because it reduces significant delays and costs by simulating physical manufacturing systems, spots errors and helps rectify them before the actual process of commissioning begins.
Simply explained, VC is a process by which the design, installation, operation, maintenance and various other functions of a production plant is conducted on a virtual platform. The process enables the testing of plant changes using a Digital Twin of the plant, before the changes are brought about in the physical plant and equipment. This essentially helps avert various risks, including downtime and loss of revenue.
How virtual commissioning works
For the application of a VC process, a Digital Twin of the actual plant model is required. Experts build precise 3D software models of physical systems, wherein all static and kinematic equipment are included using software simulation. The 3D models are connected to PLC and HMI in order to run the codes. The Digital Twin accurately mimics the production environment. This enables engineers to run tests, find errors and conduct debugging procedures.
Resultantly, when the real commissioning process ensues, it is error-free to a great extent, ensuring the smooth functioning of production processes. In the absence of a VC process, plants would be at risk of failures due to hidden errors, downtime, wastage of resources, loss of revenue and tarnished reputation. All of this can be avoided by using VC, which is cost-effective, solution-oriented and safe.
When to choose virtual commissioning
Virtual commissioning can benefit any industry or manufacturing unit. Globally, VC processes have been employed across industries with quantifiable, positive results. Overall, VC processes have been largely successful, irrespective of the kind of manufacturing process it has been applied to.
Generally, whenever a manufacturing plant contains complex production lines or automation has been applied, there arises a need for the application of VC process. It is common for manufacturers to use multiple PLC, HMI and kinematic equipment. Whenever there is an application of NC machines and robots in the production system, VC should be chosen in order to smoothen and optimise the operations.
Beginning the virtual commissioning process
The ultimate goal of a VC process should be savings in terms of time and effort, and the enhancement of production processes at the level of physical commissioning. In order to derive maximum benefits from a VC process, certain factors need to be considered at the beginning.
For instance, engineers generally collaborate on the factory floor during the installation of the physical equipment. VC requires experts to collaborate much before the physical installation phase arrives. Collaboration and coordination needs to begin right at the stage of conception of the idea and the designing phase. It needs to be ensured that the PLC, HMI, robots and safety measures are ready well ahead of time.
Of course, management of the VC process is of utmost importance. The best way is to treat it as a strategic project, with the right deployment of management personnel on all levels and the vendor contracts for all software and equipment in place. Collaboration within the company as well as with agents outside it is key to the successful deployment of a VC process and the consequent smooth functioning of physical commissioning.
Measuring the ROI of virtual commissioning
The Rate on Investment of a VC process can be calculated based on the nature of its implementation. Before beginning the process, a clear evaluation of the expected outcomes need to be conducted. The ultimate aim is to reduce engineering time on all levels. Thus, the measurement needs to be done taking into consideration the time required with the implementation of VC process, vis-a-vis the time that was required in former projects.
ROI may be calculated by measuring the reduction of errors in commissioning after implementation of the VC process in comparison to projects undertaken earlier. Further, the extent of reduction in safety failures and wastage of resources because of prototyping errors can be calculated and compared with former projects. This can reveal the extent of cost savings after the implementation of the VC process. Economic benefits can also be ascertained by measuring the reduction in production time and the increase in production volume.
Selecting virtual commissioning software
It is important to define the scope of the expected outcome of using a VC software for the optimisation of production processes. In case a manufacturing unit uses multiple kinematic equipment, robots and other mechanical tools, a 3D simulation software is required. Furthermore, the selected software must be equipped with reliable clash avoidance support. The software should also be able to load a substantial amount of 3D data,
seamlessly simulate events, help identify bottlenecks in production and calculate throughput.
The best VC tools support multiple HMI and PLC brands, allow smooth switching between simulation and the real environment, and a seamless integration with other softwares used in production. While selecting a VC tool, it should be kept in mind that the software is advanced enough to allow the integration of newer software in the future. What’s more, there should be smooth integration with robotics simulation, systems managing product lifecycles and offline programming systems.
VC gaining ground
It is well established that for manufacturers across industries, the sooner an error in the manufacturing process is detected, the more money is saved and vice-versa. For engineers and plant operators, it is therefore necessary to begin the process of troubleshooting at an earlier stage of the project. Debugging systems well in advance will result in reduced faults during the actual commissioning.
This objective is achieved by implementing VC during the phases of project planning, designing and engineering. Using VC, control programs, visualisation and other planning data can be optimised in a simulated environment. This process essentially reduces risks, saves resources and, most importantly, time.
There’s no surprise, hence, that VC is gaining popularity across industries at a rapid rate. Large scale enterprises as well as SMEs are deriving unparalleled benefits from digitalisation, simulation and optimisation processes. Soon, these digital tools will be the core component of every manufacturing unit, as the adoption and integration of advanced software has become imperative for success.
Optimising plant processes with VC
A useful rule of thumb is that the longer it takes for an error to be detected, the greater the expenses incurred to eliminate it. For industrial and plant operators dealing with complex machinery, this implies that a speedy troubleshooting process is an imperative to fast-track the development process. The idea is to eliminate errors as much as possible in order to ensure the smooth functioning of the plant and its processes.
VC essentially ensures that this requirement is fulfilled during the planning and engineering phases of the project. During the VC process, a virtual environment is used for the validation and optimisation of planning data, including visualisation and control program. The use of VC process saves both time and resources, given that on-site testing of equipment is time-consuming and expensive.
The VC process can also be used to improve the quality of control software by a large margin and reduce the consumption of time significantly as well. With a VC software platform like Siemens’ TIA Portal, simulation, validation and optimisation of controllers and machines can be successfully conducted. Steadily becoming a patent method of optimisation of plant processes, VC is gaining ground in the manufacturing, automation, power and various other industries.
Benefits of virtual commissioning
Although the advantages of VC are quite clear, the VC process can be used to essentially achieve the four-pronged objectives.
Faster commissioning: Using a simulated environment to conduct extensive tests can significantly speed up the commissioning process. Using on-site machines at the plant is more expensive and slower than simulation processes using digital platforms. A software platform can instead be used to identify and address errors in design and functions before launching operations at the plant facility.
Improved engineering: Simulations can be conducted side-byside during the engineering phase, enabling the use of data gathered during the VC process in order to improve the quality of engineering. Digitally testing a model ensures an increased certainty that the controllers will function as expected during actual commissioning.
Lowered costs: A significant reduction in on-site testing time, errors, and commissioning time, due to prior testing in a simulated environment, leads to reduced costs. During the actual commissioning, minor errors may require corrections, with the majority of debugging having been done during the VC process.
Reduced risk: Testing a model on a digital platform does not involve tangible equipment or personnel, rendering the tests risk-free. Defects and errors in the actual plant machinery and equipment can be reduced with extensive troubleshooting on a virtual platform.
Applications of virtual commissioning
Therefore, with the substantial advantages of VC, VC processes can be conducted using a digital twin. It is a virtual representation of tangible machinery, plant equipment, production processes and production environment. These models are reliable and powerful in diagnosing errors and helping improve design. Digital twins are being implemented across industries to optimise plant performance in ways that were previously unthinkable.
Besides, manufacturing systems today, are being increasingly controlled by Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) programs. These allow manufacturers to bring changes in production lines without altering the manufacturing facility entirely. VC processes can be used to optimise automation systems and debug PLC programs on a simulated platform.
Manufacturers are in a permanent state of competition, while perpetually dealing with evolving customer demands, increasing variants of products, and shortening product lifecycles. Also, there exists a time constraint in product launching and the pressure of making adequate profits. Flexible production equipment and systems are being introduced across industries, along with automation processes, robotics, cutting-edge tooling and safety equipment.
Consequently, VC tools not only enable increased production speed and volume, they also help cut down costs in terms of reduced engineering efforts, commissioning time and errors. With digitalisation, automation and electrification emerging as the major global trends in the manufacturing industry, VC is an indelible part of the future of manufacturing. Resultantly, with passing time, more and more manufacturers are finding themselves adopting VC tools to achieve heightened and enhanced production processes.