In military science, a “force multiplier” is an operational system that uses strategy to increase the effectiveness of existing armaments. We can use the idea as a metaphor for improving the efficiency of engineering and manufacturing information systems, from initial concept to ongoing customer service.
The “armaments” of industrial automation are represented by a variety of acronyms: CAD, CAE, PDM, PLM, SCM, MES, CMS and more. Almost every manufacturing company has some level of process automation, yet many conversations about manufacturing processes end with the phrase, “then we copy the data from the bill of materials.” This is where efficiency improvements stop. To continue our initial metaphor, manufacturing companies own the armaments, but there is no overriding strategy to make them an industrial force multiplier.
We have access to plenty of data creation, gathering and management solutions across the manufacturing space that inform various aspects of what a product should become and how a manufacturing process should work, system by system. The next step is to move beyond “should” into “does.” Transforming information into real-time intelligence is the force multiplier—the planned performance data these solutions provide can become information about real-time, real-world performance.
Strategic Information Frameworks
Virtual thread and virtual twin (aka digital twin/thread) are two related concepts at the forefront of this quest for real-time intelligence. As a reminder, a virtual thread is the ability for users to improve specific performances by delivering the right information to the right people at the right time. Meanwhile, a virtual twin is a constantly updated visual representation of a product, system or process based on real-world data.
These new information frameworks drive a new process model in which data is seen as part of both a virtual thread and a virtual twin. In model-based engineering, for example, the thread and twin represent a strategic framework for creating maximum value in the enterprise. Both include as-designed requirements; validation and calibration records; and as-built, as-operated and as-maintained data.
Virtual thread and virtual twin are concepts, not specific products or services: You can’t run to your local integrator and order a virtual thread. Instead, they provide solutions that help users create fully digital systems in which every individual in the organization has all the information needed in an easy-to-access, easy-to-share system.
Connectivity is the overriding goal. Many data-related issues come down to connections and access, meaning companies need to eliminate the inefficiencies that plague manufacturing operations.
How many of these challenges exist in your organization?
- Engineering changes do not reach the shop floor in a timely fashion
- Lack of supplier visibility
- No standard or control on work instruction creation
- Out-of-sync content management and control
- Marketing creates content with outdated design information
- Loss of productivity due to inaccurate, unclear information
- Lack of data access for the right people.
While many of these issues sound like technology or methodology problems, they always impact the individuals in the operation downstream by impeding their ability to optimize workflows. To make operations more efficient, you must improve the systems in use, not try to “fix” the people using them. Fully digital systems serve the needs of team members by eliminating these connectivity and data access issues.
The Virtual Thread
The virtual thread—the communications side of the new industrial framework—enables connected data flow for all asset information and related metadata. The idea of the virtual thread originated in aerospace research more than 10 years ago, when researchers at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base used it to describe model-driven assembly on the factory floor. Multiple threads extend from the model (the common data source) to design, procurement, testing, production, field operations, and sustainment teams, meaning there is no need for any individual in the thread to request data or respond to data requests with a copy/paste email. The information is always “on” and always accessible, establishing a true singular resource and communication pathway for all parties regardless of silo or workstream.
The Virtual Twin at CenterLine
Having always-on, real-time access to data from virtual threads makes a virtual twin possible. The threads transmit a comprehensive view of the product, combining Bill of Materials details with CAD/CAE data for a visual, virtual, real-time representation. It takes a two-way flow in virtual threads to enable a true virtual twin, requiring a feedback loop where calibration, validation, as-built and as-used data all update the twin. Together, the virtual thread and virtual twin are the unification of design and data.
For example, Canadian industrial automation process and technology company CenterLine Limited (Windsor, Ontario), a producer of custom automated welding and assembly lines, faced challenges with expensive factory set-ups, especially if the company needed to fix design errors or address operational accidents between machines and human workers in physical systems that had already been installed.
CenterLine sought to optimize their robotic work cell designs and overcome these challenges through digital simulation before deployment of physical equipment on factory floors. To achieve this goal, they implemented the DELMIA solution on Dassault Systèmes’ 3DEXPERIENCE platform to virtually simulate products, processes and factory operations for optimized robot movements, plant layout, material flow and ergonomics.
Since implementing DELMIA for every robotic work cell, CenterLine has reduced tooling-related issues and rework by up to 90 percent and programming time on the floor by up to 75 percent. Time saved through simulating robot arc welding tool paths has improved productivity by 15 percent and shortened the time to market for simulation and design by 15 percent to 20 percent. As a single source of truth for different CAD data, the unified platform allows leaders at CenterLine to focus on day-to-day operations instead of managing data and products
When all channels of data are connected in a Virtual Thread/Virtual Twin framework, team members are united in a strategy that empowers better use of existing data. In effect, manufacturers ultimately gain a new force multiplier for manufacturing value.