Contrary to what it may sound like, digitizing the factory, as it’s sometimes called, doesn’t mean replacing all the workers in a plant with high-tech robots. Instead, digital factory software can help ensure that a product is manufactured in the most streamlined method possible.
The software, also called digital manufacturing software, extends the uses of computer-aided design tools used by engineers for product design, said Peter Schmitt, vice president of marketing and business development at ESI. The company’s virtual prototyping software allows companies to test their manufacturing processes virtually.
“Both types of software tools optimize how products can be manufactured.” Schmitt said. “CAD tools help engineers take care to come up with optimal product design. But factory digitalization makes sure the product can be manufactured in the right quality with reliable processes, within the shortest time frame, and with the best factory layout.”
Man Truck & Bus Österreich AG used ESI technology to design a more efficient design for a truck assembly line. They were able to design the assembly sequence, improve the assembly process, and make the operations faster and more efficient, according to ESI.
Other makers of digital factory software include Delmia Corp. of Troy, Mich.; Tecnomatix Technologies of Herzeliya, Israel; Rockwell Automation of Milwaukee, and HP Enterprise Service of Plano, Texas.
Digital factory software is used for more than just laying out a plant floor on computer. It serves a number of functions around the manufacturing plant, including designing individual workstations in order to guard employees against repetitive motion injuries, and siting and programming the robots used on the line.
There are three areas to consider before actually laying out a real factory, Schmitt said. First, engineers have to determine the assemblies, fabrication, and machining needed for the specific manufacturing process. Second, they need to figure out what tooling, fixtures, and equipment—down to the nuts and bolts—will be needed. Then, they must lay out a factory floor plan. Virtual factory software is useful for each of these steps.
While factory simulation software lets manufacturing engineers visualize the production process via computer—which allows an overview of factory operations for a particular manufacturing job—discrete simulation lets the engineers focus up close on each individual production stop. Both views are necessary to get a complete sense of what’s happening on the factory floor, Schmitt said.
Virtual manufacturing techniques have been in use for about 14 years in the automotive industry. Within the last decade they’ve been adopted more and more by those in the aerospace realm, said Deidra Donald, senior sales representative at Delmia. Some of the software modules that allow for discrete simulation are particularly useful in aerospace, she said.
“When you have a bottleneck, it’s easy enough just to see that on the actual shop floor itself. The parts are queuing up in one place and not moving on to the rest of the system,” she said. “But you can’t see how it’s impacting the overall facility or overall production. Digitally, you not only see the parts queuing up, but you can also quantify how much it’s affecting you. It could be, you think it’s not affecting you, but of course it could be affecting costs.”
Factory simulation software gives a sense of whether or not a bottleneck would occur if the factory process were laid out as planned. It extrapolates problems of a particular line layout and forecasts the costs of a problem like a bottleneck, Schmitt said.
Consider that a typical car has between 25,000 and 35,000 parts, and you get an idea of the scale and impact of the software’s forecasts, he added.
Many of the uses for digital factory software occur well before the final product is even designed. If engineers decide to change the design of a part while the part is still only a CAD model, they can use virtual factory simulation to demonstrate the effect of the new design at every stage of the manufacturing process, he added. The redesigned part, for example, might need more clearance on the automotive line.
Building a virtual factory model is a lot of work, but worth it, as the model can be used over and over to test and redesign factory processes.