VC creates easier, more powerful methods for model-based design by using a digital twin — a virtual representation of a corresponding physical product — and helps cut delays and costs.
Editor's Note: This article is adapted from the full white paper, "Virtual Commissioning with a Model-Driven Digital Twin." Download the free, comprehensive white paper that provides additional, detailed information about the evolution of virtual commissioning; the role of the FMI standard in connecting models; VC workflow; how a model-based digital twin is constructed, actuated, analyzed, then integrated with automation software; VC techniques; and other ways a digital twin can help improve product design and operation.
In the manufacturing and automation industry, adopting new development techniques has become a key requirement for success. As demands on product requirements increase, the inherent design risks can pose significant problems, threatening the success and reputation of those trying to keep pace. To mitigate this risk, the technique of virtual commissioning (VC) promises to reduce significant delays and costs associated with the difficult task of system integration and commissioning.
Since its inception, the intention of VC always has been to help solve a variety of problems that can arise when manufacturing systems are brought together for integration and operation with a programmable logic controller (PLC). The automation industry has long acknowledged the potential benefits of using virtual models to simulate the performance of physical systems, where integration issues could be spotted before entering into the expensive process of physical integration.
In the evolution of VC, it has been organized into four categories of general control development:
- Traditional Commissioning involves testing the physical system (plant) against the hardware controllers without the assistance of virtual modeling techniques.
- Soft Commissioning, or Hardware-in-the-Loop (HIL) testing, uses a virtual plant model that is used to test the hardware controllers.
- Reality-in-the-Loop, alternatively, tests simulated hardware controllers against a constructed, physical system.
- VC is the process of testing that uses both a virtual plant model and a virtual control system for simulation.
Technologies have now been developed that make VC implementation possible for the majority of automation companies. As far back as 2006 studying German machine tool builders, it was demonstrated that VC techniques stood to save up to 75% of the time required for traditional commissioning. Today, new technologies and software integrations are significantly reducing the historical barriers associated with virtual commissioning.
Technologies for Virtual Commissioning
For VC to be practical for manufacturing and automation, the creation and function of virtual plant models needs to be sufficient for use outside the niche experts or simplified demonstrations. Development of advanced, model-driven design practices has taken form of a digital twin. A digital twin refers to the virtual plant models while differentiating itself from the historical, typically simpler models that were unable to function as fully as their modern counterparts.
In addition to these digital twins, the software standards for model connectivity also have seen drastic improvements.
Together, these technologies are permitting the widespread practicality of VC throughout the automation industry.
Model-Driven Digital Twins
A digital twin is a dynamic, virtual representation of a corresponding physical product. These models can range widely in their purpose and fidelity, but they serve as a powerful connection to the product for diagnostics, design changes and the VC process. Companies are using digital twins increasingly to optimize their products in ways that were previously either unrealistic or impossible.
With system-level modeling tools, creating a model-driven digital twin can begin alongside the design process. While past attempts at VC used model-based techniques, they lacked the fidelity and flexibility required to make the process feasible for common usage.
Now, modeling tools allow engineers to begin their process by importing their computer-aided design (CAD) information from other tools. The CAD import technology has become an important development to make digital twins more accessible to the automation market. Model-driven digital twins now are an important, emerging trend in the automation industry, making VC more accessible and adding a variety of other capabilities to more parts of the design process.
Since the advent of VC, many technological barriers have been overcome to realize the benefits of model-based system integration. The current state of technology can offer practical VC techniques that are more accessible than ever to the automation industry. As part of a growing need to speed development and minimize the inherent risk in developing new, innovative products, digital twins and virtual commissioning techniques are quickly becoming essential technologies. As these technologies continue to develop, their role in the automation industry will continue to grow into an essential component of modern, high-performance product design.
Maplesoft, based in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, is a participating Encompass™ Product Partner in the Rockwell Automation PartnerNetwork™ program. Maplesoft provides engineers with tools to support a model-driven process that helps manage design complexity, including system-level modeling and analysis tools like MapleSim. The firm serves machine design, robotics, aerospace, automotive and other fields.
The Journal From Rockwell Automation and Our PartnerNetwork™ is published by Putman Media, Inc.