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Merging Virtual with the Real World

“Computing technology has advanced to the point where we can deploy virtual equipment to simulate the production process and generate control code.”

Safety and security are hot topics in the world of automation. With safety as the focus of this month’s issue, you’ll find new ideas for safe-certified fieldbus networks and safety-rated motion control systems. We’ve even highlighted the sometimes-controversial integration of the safety system with the automation system—in accordance with strict International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) safety standards—to save costs and streamline information flow.

At the heart of these breakthroughs is digital technology—including communications and diagnostics. Advances in digital technology are turning dreams into reality, and pioneering new ways of solving problems.

A good example of this is an emerging area dubbed “digital manufacturing.” I recently attended an ARC Advisory Group Webcast on the topic, with ARC analysts Dick Slansky and Greg Gorbach addressing how digital manufacturing will integrate the product lifecycle, from design and build to support and maintain.

What is it? According to ARC, “Digital manufacturing represents an integrated suite of tools that supports process design, tool design, plant layout and visualization through powerful virtual simulation tools.”

Where does it fit in? Digital manufacturing sits in the space between product design and production processes. It provides process optimization modeling and virtual factory design for production lines, work cells, machines, packaging lines, assembly equipment—even the automation system itself.

What are the benefits? Says Slansky, “The main focus [of digital manufacturing] is optimizing production processes and reducing time to launch [new products]. Manufacturers can create factory models and use digital manufacturing tools to ensure that they operate at peak efficiency before a single piece of physical equipment is purchased, installed and commissioned.”

Where is it being used? Digital manufacturing has been most successfully deployed in the automotive, aerospace and defense, and heavy equipment industries. However, says ARC, promising new markets include consumer product goods, food and beverage, packaging, power and utilities.

Who is providing the digital manufacturing tools? This is predominantly a development effort from the product lifecycle management (PLM) software suppliers. According to a white paper from research firm CIMdata, “digital manufacturing solutions need to exist within a PLM environment so that they can manage the processes, data and resources across planning activities…using common data models whenever possible…and with support for a heterogeneous computer-aided design (CAD) environment.”

Virtual automation

One of the hottest new areas for digital manufacturing, particularly for automation professionals, is the use of simulation tools to actually generate code. Says ARC’s Gorbach, “Computing technology has advanced to the point where we can deploy virtual equipment, such as robots and assembly lines, to simulate the production process and generate control code.”

Slansky and Gorbach cite PLM heavyweights Dassault Systemes and UGS as leading vendors in the area of simulation and code generation. Tecnomatix software from UGS includes functionality for robotics simulation and programming. Delmia Automation software from Dassault uses the IEC 61131-3 programming standard to create, edit, debug and validate controls logic for a programmable logic controller (PLC) target, prior to commissioning. The control program can be loaded to a virtual or a real PLC.

Which brings us right back to our issue topic—safety. How cool is that, to be able to create, debug and test control code, in a simulated situation, before running it on a factory floor with real, live operators? It’s yet another example of virtual digital technology improving plant-floor safety and productivity.

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