With the progressive digitalisation of production plants of all sizes and with a vast range of functions, the task now is to bring together the conglomeration of data and optimise processes. Digital twins represent the production line or even entire plants both in a high optical quality as well as with identical parameters of the real production. Thereby, they do not only help during operation, but can also optimise blueprints for the highest possible efficiency before the final design.
The clone that does not mind testing
The tedious process of optimising production lines often presents companies with obstacles. Changing a few parameters during operation can escalate, leading to a cascading problem and, in the worst case, it can even stop production. Of course, the worst case rarely occurs, however, digital replicas provide a level of security: Instead of using production as a guinea pig, simulations on the computer can provide the greatest possible solution.
The computing power of modern computers is sufficient to record and simulate all important parameters of each component of a production line. Supplied with detailed 3D models of the systems, identical control algorithms and other known factors, the twin offers an excellent test field for tests that could never be carried out on a running machine - whether it be on account of too high a risk, production downtime during the test phase or also for training purposes.
The replica simulates the path of the substances and thus provides optical feedback that directly points out possible error sources or future sources of interference. This information can prepare the personnel already beforehand for necessary maintenance work and offers further insights into the efficiency of the overall system.
Digital twin: Prototype helps even before the implementation
Increasingly, the digital twin is set up - or programmed - even before the actual production line starts. For example, engineers can already test numerous settings and check the compatibility of various components before an investment of millions is made. Amongst other things, Achenbach Buschhütten GmbH has specialised in the construction of rolling mills. Due to the size of its facilities, the company first designs a twin and optimises it according to the customer's requirements. Subsequently, the rolling mill can be constructed in the real world. The final product is often faster in operation than plants based on pure calculations. After all, the right parameters were able to be determined in advance, even before the first roll of steel passed through the mill. The accuracy of the simulation is high enough that only minor adjustments are necessary.
Aschenbach Buschhütten GmbH is relying on virtual reality as its core technology as well. For several years now, virtual reality has no longer been just a dream of the future. In comparison to conventional alternatives, the creation of a 3D model pays off quickly provided that the technology is used extensively in the company. With the completely digitalised control room and production line, the company is not only able to train personnel at any location. Future repairs can also be carried out cost-effectively and without risk before the 'real' system is repaired.
In addition, the detailed 3D model can also be used for sales and marketing purposes. Potential customers will be able to imagine the end product better than with sketches or photos. For trade fairs and exhibitions, there is no logistics factor. This should not be underestimated, especially for large production facilities and exhibits. Even before trainees dare to venture into the real plant, they can practice extensively with a virtual model. There is no risk and work steps can be repeated as often as necessary. Even safety training courses can now be implemented as well.
Virtual Reality: How practical is it?
Should you wish to learn more about virtual reality technology and the various application scenarios in the metal industry, please read our theme of the month "Industry with new eyes". Virtual reality offers completely new possibilities and is not only able to optimise processes, but it can also help with training, prototyping, marketing and the acquisition of new talent.
However, virtual reality can also only be an intermediate step in production. The digital twin provides the opportunity to use augmented reality in the future: Here, not only a computer image is displayed - as in virtual reality - but additional digital content is also projected onto the real machine. What this could look like in the future is shown by Microsoft, for example, with the Hololens. Maintenance personnel can use data goggles to obtain information on any component being viewed at a given time - be it the speed of an assembly line, the current temperature of an object or the exact tightening torque of each screw. This makes maintenance more efficient and the search for manuals and technical drawings is a thing of the past.
Otto Junker GmbH is already preparing its products for the future: Small QR codes can be found on each component, which - once scanned with a camera - will supply all the details: Parts lists as well as drawings and data sheets. In addition, web-based applications allow personnel to make changes to the system and obtain current and historical process data regardless of the location.
The future of the virtual twin is the perfect fusion of digital processes with real machines. Permanent monitoring and fast intervention options for the personnel are already part of today's positive image, but the fusion of all collected data is often a big construction site. Technology and software such as that from Otto Junker is becoming more powerful and cheaper from generation to generation and will be indispensable within a few years.