Stating that the Covid pandemic has had a gigantic impact on the world, is still an understatement. The crisis has affected many aspects of our lives. On a professional level, working from home became standard, supply chains got seriously disrupted, resulting in material shortages and production stops, virtually all exhibitions and conferences were canceled, and many companies reevaluated their business strategies.
Another consequence of the lockdowns were severe travel restrictions, so we were faced with the challenge that we couldn’t meet our customers in the flesh. Teams, Zoom and all other digital channels only go so far, especially when you want to install, finetune and test the system you just delivered to them. Remote commissioning proved to be a hard nut to crack. Because of this pickle, we saw a – sometimes renewed – interest in virtual commissioning, based on Digital Twin technology.
The step to virtual verification and commissioning is very understandable. Building a digital carbon copy of your system gives you many advantages, also during installation and final testing. From hands-on experience, we know that you can shorten the commissioning time by at least 25 percent, even when you are new to the technology and it is only your first swing.
That time reduction has two sides. First, because you can verify and check approximately 75 percent of the machine beforehand, the commissioning team will need less time on site. Second, the run-up time to production is shortened drastically. The return on investment can be easily calculated on the back of an envelope: what are the costs of the on-site commissioning team per day? How many days can you win by using virtual commissioning? And how big is the benefit from that earlier uptime? That has to balance out the investment in the necessary software, the time to build the digital twin and, if applicable, the consultancy you need to hire. As said, 25 percent time reduction is a given, and it will only increase in your next efforts. Added bonus is that you need less flight movements, making virtual commissioning the more sustainable solution.
Of course, you cannot anticipate on everything in your simulation. There will always be situational issues that pop up locally. For instance, the underground might be a bit crooked. Also, customer requirements might change at the very last moment, even when the system has already been shipped. And finally, some things are just too difficult to simulate because you cannot catch ever single detail in your digital twin. Those issues you’ll still have to tackle on site. But all the rest – the stack times, the run of the machines and all regular and rare actions and procedures, all sensors and actuators – can be checked and validated before the physical machine actually arrives at the customer.
Many first-timers have cold feet when they want to start implementing digital twins in their commissioning process. They don’t know where to begin or what software tools to use. We have devised a roadmap and a set of instructions on how to upload your CAD model, how to add kinematics, how to emulate sensors and actuators, how to determine the physics and how to couple PLCs and logic. We can also take a client by the hand and guide him through that process, if necessary.
You might want to start relatively small, with a handful of issues that cause the most problems in the commissioning phase. Concentrate on them and build a smaller digital twin focusing on the kinematics of those process steps. That way, you save time and effort, and you’ll score a quick win. Also, it will give the commissioning team the opportunity to give constructive feedback to their engineering colleagues and suggest improvements and make their work that much easier.
Virtual commissioning makes the benefit of a digital twin very tangible since the time and cost reduction are abundantly clear. Right at the moment that customer contact is closest and mistakes or false assumptions from earlier in the development are felt most, you can show the quality of your processes and the swiftness of your organization.
A happy customer is golden, but you shouldn’t stop there. Once companies have started with digital twinning for virtual commissioning, they soon realize that it’s just a starting point. Ideally, they use one digital twin throughout the whole process, from development and engineering, to software, validation and commissioning. That way, they spread out the investment costs and efforts, and take maximum advantage of all feedback loops.
Author: Guido van Gageldonk