The role of digital data is expanding rapidly, extending to the equipment on the factory floor after coming into dominance in the design of everything from components to end vehicles. That’s making it possible for designers and manufacturers alike to model and simulate nearly everything before vehicles and their production lines exist in the real world.
Digitalization is being used for more tasks in the automation equipment world, driven in large part by software advances in diverse fields such as modeling, simulation and product lifecycle management (PLM). Siemens recently detailed its progress in using digitalization to shorten the time needed to set up factories and start production.
“The integration of automation and PLM today is something that just a few years ago seemed like a fantasy,” said Raj Batra, President of Siemens’ Digital Factory Division. “Companies can get a better return on investment, reduce time to market and reduce engineering time even as complexity increases. Companies need to start taking a holistic approach, starting with design, going through manufacturing, servicing and maintenance.”
Underscoring the need to ramp factories up quickly, he cited Tesla’s challenge as manufacturing must quickly ramp up to meet the large number of pending orders. Software tool providers have been expanding their portfolios to make it easier for designers and manufacturers to improve compatibility between various tools used at different steps in the design to production to maintenance cycle.
Siemens has spent $10 billion to acquire automation and software companies in recent years, adding Mentor Graphics earlier this year. Both PTC and Dassault Systemes have each bought a dozen or more companies this decade.
Those mergers, coupled with extensive R&D for existing products, are letting manufacturers use design files to help set up production lines and check to see how production equipment can be employed efficiently. Simulating manufacturing steps often shows where problems may arise, giving managers a chance to alter workflows and equipment positions, several Siemens sources noted. One said that tools have gotten so accurate that they can tell technicians that a cable connection may need a support screw if its orientation is changed.
Cloud computing will also play a greater role as factories join the Internet of Things (IoT). Using the cloud can make it simpler for companies to scale up operations to meet changing demand, Batra noted. When plant floor equipment is viewable using web portals, specialists can adjust equipment and troubleshoot problems from remote sites using laptops, he added.