Hirata Corporation is an OEM machine builder based in Kumamoto, Japan. Founded in 1951, Hirata has been striving to have a wide range customer base in more than 40 countries by leveraging its own developed modules. It is very active in automotive and semi-conductor industries, and its strength is an end-to-end machine supply from design, engineering through commissioning. Hirata’s philosophy is to “deliver the human-friendly machine and system.”
2019: Hirata’s challenge
It seems that everything is on track, program debugging and position education has been the headache at Hirata for a long time. The program itself can be checked even before machines are built, but debugging can be done only after machines are built and running the program. Then the teaching follows. Normally teaching is done through human-machine interface (HMI) inputting the position of each axis of robots and has to be done with a great deal of care and the hours for the very precise position input. Therefore, it was really natural for Hirata to think, “What if we can start the debug process without waiting for the machine to be built?” At the same time, commissioning is another challenge for Hirata. Especially when it comes to overseas projects, people at the site had to just wait several weeks (or even months depending on the destination) before machines arrive at a site. They then wondered if there was anything they can do during shipping and freight time.
Hirata then encountered Emulate3D™ software from Rockwell Automation®. Hirata and Rockwell Automation had a business relationship in component supply such as programmable logic controllers (PLC) or servo products, especially for machines shipped to the United States. In January 2019, Rockwell Automation acquired Emulate3D for its expanding digital engineering capabilities and started the sales promotion of the digital tool. At that time, offline teaching through simulation software was becoming popular, but simulation was unable to test the program so debugging could not be done with simulation tools. Emulation allows engineers to run the program on the virtual environment with the 3D computer-aided design (CAD) objects so engineers can start to debug the program without waiting for the machine to be built. Hirata was impressed by the first demo done by technical consultants from Rockwell Automation Japan.
Proof of Concept with Trial and Error
It was June 2019 when the Rockwell Automation Japan team conducted an Emulate3D demo in front of Hirata engineers. Primaries from Hirata were impressed by the presentation and demo but felt the need for technical verification at the same time. Then the collaborative proof-of-concept journey started. Hirata gave some technical information to Rockwell Automation consultants to let them set up a more tailored demo. Rockwell Automation consultants came back to Hirata with a tailored demo and gave Hirata additional inputs for more rounds of set-up. After the rounds of communication back and forth for several months, Hirata engineers became more confident in the tool and turned to management for budget approval. Mr. Shimizu in #2 Kumamoto Business Division #2 Business Unit, referenced that moment by saying, “We’ve encountered multiple simulation solutions that resulted in a small-scale deployment. But Emulate3D was different. Once we obtained the demo program developed by Rockwell Automation with our real 3D CAD data, we were impressed by its quality and could feel the huge potential in a variety of use cases.”
After the budget was approved, dedicated engineers were assigned in January 2020 and intensive hands-on training began by Rockwell Automation technical consultants. Months of training enabled dedicated engineers to fully utilize the emulation tool and resulted in some great outcomes within some actual projects. This success led to the new “Digital Engineering team” under Mr. Kusuguchi, general manager’s division including four new engineers. Next year in April 2021, #3 Business Unit, the next business unit to Mr. Kusuguchi’s organization, established “3D Design Promotion team” which included four engineers. Now, Emulate3D has been expanded with 30% reduction in engineering time and 70% efficiency up in debugging work.
Emulate3D can integrate virtual reality (VR) features so that detailed safety checks or danger predictions can be completed in virtual environments in addition to checking on machines running PLC programs. This can be also utilized for virtual commissioning, which enables Hirata to reduce the needed engineer dispatch and commissioning time. Additionally, troubleshooting or factory acceptance testing (FAT) can be done with virtual emulating machine operations. In fact, according to Hirata, due to the global pandemic, more and more remote FAT/troubleshooting requests are being received. It is a huge benefit, not only for Hirata, but also for end users to change the business behaviors from real/in-person to remote. Furthermore, the combination of Emulate3D with VR can realize the virtual training environments so that site workers can complete operation training while waiting for oceanic transportation. This virtual training is also applicable for newly hired employees seeking training.
The benefits of emulation tools in manufacturing and engineering industries have been highlighted so far, but Hirata is also looking at the more diversified value in this tool. For example, as an OEM vendor, they can conduct machine demonstrations via emulation plus VR without running the booth in the exhibition. Their sales team can also show the quick demo in front of customers, even remotely, on a tablet so that sales cycles can become more efficient. Mr. Kusuguchi, Mr. Shimizu’s manager says, “We’ve been delivering added value in quality and lead time, but we will be able to add further value with innovative digital tools such as Emulate3D.” Hirata’s journey will keep going.