With the vast amount of data being collected across manufacturing operations, the veracity of digital twins is improving along with the uses they can be put to. At this year’s Automation Fair in Chicago, Rockwell Automation demonstrated how combining a digital twin with virtual reality (VR) to understand how a production line operates.

The system is based on Emulate3D, an innovative engineering software platform that Rockwell acquired earlier this year that digitally simulates and emulates industrial automation systems. By using accurate simulation models to improve systems planning and decision-making, followed by emulation trials that test the control system before installation, Emulate3D’s software enables customers to virtually test machine and system designs before incurring manufacturing and automation costs and committing to a final design.

An immersive experience

VR systems immerse users in a computer-generated world where they can navigate and interact, viewing complex operations in a clear and convincing way. In VR systems which can connect to live models, this level of interaction can alter the way the modelled system behaves, either through browser-based HMIs, or through buttons and levers, all of which enhance the feeling of really being there. Smartphone-based VR systems can show recordings of operating models but nonetheless include more features than video, as the camera position within the model can be altered by the user.

AR systems incorporate models into the real world by locating them precisely with respect to the real environment, giving the impression of solidity as viewers move around them. Because AR systems include the real environment, they offer great possibilities for demonstrating new solutions to others – including remotely. Several viewers can move around, see each other as avatars, and interact with the running model, while the dialogue between them continues.

Improving market access

“Our customers will have the ability to improve their time to market and operational productivity through digital machine prototyping and virtual commissioning,” John Pritchard, global portfolio manager, Rockwell Automation, said. “It also marks another investment by Rockwell Automation to bring the Connected Enterprise to life.”

“Although it is not necessary to use virtual reality as part of the digital design journey, what we are hearing from customers is that virtual reality gives you a more immersive and, in fact, collaborative way to try and understand what your factory is ultimately going to look like at human scale. When you go into the virtual reality environment you can see things such as sightlines and check whether tower lights are visible for any sized operator.

“You can also check the layout of the machinery and see whether you think the spacing looks right, whether operators can reach everything they need. But also, because in this particular software Emulate3D build the digital factory running real product, real physics and real HMIs, you can also interface with the HMI stop starts, clear false and change settings. It gives you a forensic insight into how the real factory will run once is ultimately built. The VR just takes it to another level of understanding that you just do not get from a flat screen mode.”

Building a twin

To construct these digital twins usually requires two things. Typically, a machine builder will have 3D CAD of their machine and that can be combined with stock items for the likes of conveyors, robots and automated guided vehicles. “When we build these digital factories, it is typically a combination of both,” Pritchard added. “The machine models come from the machine builder while the other ancillary items are often just pulled out of the catalogue that is built into our tool. A lot of those catalogue items are not simply generic, they are real conveyors made by real conveyor manufacturers with real catalogue numbers. Once you have selected them, they turn up in a bill of materials to make it easier to specify them.”

The technology is equally as effective for both greenfield and brownfield facilities. “In fact, a lot of people use this when they have a ‘what if’ scenario,” Pritchard added. “An airport might already have an existing baggage handling system, but what if they want to add three more stations to that? A logistics company might already have a warehouse, what if they add another automated guided vehicle? It is probably more often used for that scenario in a brownfield scenario than it is at a greenfield scenario. Although it is also used to model completely new facilities that have not even been built yet but are really just being imagined.”