In the past, changes to production lines, the introduction of new equipment, or adjustments in workflows were made with a mix of hope and apprehension. Each change carried the unknown and the potential for prolonged downtime, inefficiency, or safety issues. Thankfully, those days are over. Recent advancements in factory simulation technology have armed manufacturers with a powerful tool to plan and execute changes with confidence.

What is Factory Simulation?

Factory simulation involves using sophisticated computer models to play out how a manufacturing plant operates but in a completely virtual space. Manufacturers can visualise various aspects of production – from their production lines and equipment to workers in action. This offers a way to tweak processes and try out new ideas without touching the actual factory floor and impacting production.

What makes factory simulation so valuable is its ability to reflect the complexities of the real world within a safe, virtual playground. Thanks to leaps forward in software technology, these virtual models are not just rough sketches but highly precise representations. They account for everything that affects production – from the detailed interactions between workers and machines (cobots) to the critical flow of materials.

Key Components of Factory Simulation

The nuts and bolts of factory simulation involve a blend of technology and ingenuity that comes together to create virtual manufacturing environments:

Modelling Software

The foundation of any factory simulation is the modelling software, which provides the tools and environment needed to create the simulations. This software can range from general-purpose simulation platforms to specialised applications designed for specific industries or types of manufacturing processes. Some examples include:

  • Arena Simulation Software – Arena from Rockwell Automation features an intuitive interface and a rich set of modelling components. The software supports scenario analysis, allowing manufacturers to compare operational strategies side-by-side and determine the most effective approach to boosting productivity and reducing costs.
  • FlexSim – This 3D simulation software is specifically designed for manufacturing, material handling, and logistics applications. Its ability to create vivid, detailed 3D models of processes enables manufacturers to explore and optimise operations visually. FlexSim also includes advanced analytics tools and customisable dashboards for monitoring key performance indicators.
  • Siemens Tecnomatix Plant Simulation – Part of Siemens’ digital manufacturing suite, this software allows for intricate and layered models of manufacturing processes, combining the convenience of pre-built libraries with the precision of external CAD data for dynamic visualisations. It boasts broad compatibility, offering smooth integration with a range of Siemens and external platforms.

FlexSim Interface

Digital Twins

Factory simulations often leverage digital twin technology, which involves creating a dynamic digital representation of a physical manufacturing system. These cyber-physical models are updated with real-time data, enabling simulations that reflect current conditions and predict future states.

Consider a digital twin used in a beverage bottling plant. This twin simulates the entire bottling line, from rinsing and filling to capping and labelling. Analysing real-time monitoring (RTM) data shows that adjusting the conveyor belt speed by just 5% could reduce bottle jams by 20%. This would significantly increase overall throughput without additional stress on machinery.

cyber-physical-system

IoT Devices

IoT devices collect real-time data from across the manufacturing environment, from machine performance metrics to environmental conditions. This information is provided in a live feed that keeps digital twins and simulations dynamically updated.

For instance, if IoT sensors identify a sudden temperature spike in production line equipment, a simulation can evaluate the potential impact on output if the machine were to shut down. This analysis empowers manufacturers to create preventative maintenance plans – which are known to reduce the likelihood of untimely equipment failures significantly.

Data Integration

Simulations integrate data from multiple sources, including production schedules, machine performance records, and quality control data. This is important to ensure that simulation models accurately reflect real-world conditions and can predict future states with a high degree of precision.

Tools like ETL (Extract, Transform, Load) software are used to gather data from different sources, convert it into a consistent format, and load it into a central repository or directly into the simulation software.

Why is Factory Simulation Important in Manufacturing?

The adoption of factory simulation technology offers several strategic benefits to manufacturers, driving improvements in efficiency, flexibility, and innovation:

1. Risk Mitigation and Decision Support

Blindly making process changes or equipment upgrades is considered a major risk to businesses, with failed implementations leading to downtime. Whenever production pauses, it’s not just about the immediate hit to profits – there’s also a ripple effect on customer trust and market position.

Factory simulations provide a sandbox for safely trialling changes in processes, layouts, or equipment. This virtual test ground allows manufacturers to foresee potential issues and strategize with confidence, eliminating the need for costly, real-world guesswork. It’s a proactive approach that channels resources toward the most impactful initiatives.

2. Boosting Efficiency While Cutting Costs

Factory simulations spotlight areas ripe for improvement. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), ‘no other technology offers more potential for improving products, perfecting processes, reducing design-to-manufacturing cycle time, and reducing product realisation costs.’ Manufacturing plants that adopt simulation technologies, like digital twins, can realize efficiency boosts of up to 15% and cut maintenance expenses by around 13%.

3. Upholding Quality and Meeting Standards

Factory simulation is also helpful when navigating complex quality assurance and regulatory standards. Through simulations, businesses can preemptively spot potential quality lapses and step in to address the problem – guaranteeing that all products adhere to exacting standards such as ISO 9001.

Manufacturers can create processes that align with specific environmental and safety regulations, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines in Australia or the European Union’s REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals) regulations. This diminishes the likelihood of facing penalties for regulatory non-compliance.

4. Implementing Next-Gen Advanced Automation and Robotics

Every manufacturer is eyeing the integration of advanced automation and robotics onto their factory floors. This will allow them to keep pace with competitors and set new benchmarks in manufacturing efficiency, precision, and safety.

However, integrating advanced automation solutions and cobots is challenging. Businesses have to consider the interaction between humans and machines and how to maximise the efficiency gains from these technologies. Factory simulation addresses both concerns by providing a detailed virtual environment to model, test, and refine these deployments before they are physically introduced.

5. Workforce Training and Safety

Introducing new advanced automation machinery, cobots, or procedures can pose significant risks to workers. While these innovations boost efficiency and transform production lines, they also redefine human-machine interactions. This demands a new level of safety protocols and a higher degree of skill from workers.

Beyond the immediate risk of injury, workplace accidents can lead to substantial costs related to long-term disability and regulatory penalties for the company. Factory simulations can mitigate these risks by providing realistic, interactive models for training purposes. Employees can get hands-on with new procedures or machinery in a completely safe, virtual space, building their skills and confidence without the real-life risks.

6. Innovation Testing

New ideas can be explored and tested extensively in a simulation before committing the resources required for real-world implementation and prototype creation. This rapid prototyping encourages iterative enhancement, paving the way for ground-breaking products and processes.

Factory Simulation – A Leap into the Future

The adoption of factory simulation technology marks a significant leap forward, providing a strategic advantage that propels manufacturers into the future of industry. The ability to simulate and tweak processes in a risk-free setting before any real-world implementation takes place is a game-changer. It not only ensures that resources are judiciously used but also significantly minimises the likelihood of costly downtimes and inefficiencies. Through detailed virtual trials, factories can enhance their quality and safety standards, ensuring they meet all regulatory requirements. Additionally, exploring advanced automation, including cobots, in these simulations can significantly increase productivity and open up innovative avenues in manufacturing.