Carrie Lee, Product Manager – Controllers at Omron Automation Americas
In the manufacturing industry, being able to simulate the design functionality of production equipment before machine building begins has wide-ranging – and obvious – advantages. Engineers can use meticulous CAD-based programs to lay out entire blocks of machinery and see how it takes up space within the plant. However, the current level of 3D simulation capability doesn’t take into account all of the different factors that go into a working production line.
In addition to the actual space taken up by the equipment and the individual moving parts, it’s important to know what’s happening in the code that will run the machines, and how this in turn affects the design’s physical elements. The challenge is to combine the simulation of the physical layout with the logic emulation in a single program that allows engineers to see how the code affects a process in real time. On top of that, the visualization process needs to be intuitive and reasonably quick. Given how many variables are involved in this effort, it’s a tall order.
What are major market players currently offering?
Traditional solutions addressing this need offer a way to create 3D simulations of production equipment, but they typically require multiple different software packages or must be externally tied to a physical programmable logic controller (PLC). Such scenarios can get cumbersome and can be error-prone, particularly when the user must toggle back and forth between windows to view different aspects of the system and make changes.
The ideal system combines everything within a single software package so that the user can import the requisite 3D models directly into a single integrated development environment (IDE) and perform testing without needing additional software or multiple programs running on a computer. The goal is to have a comprehensive PLC simulation up and running within just a few clicks of the mouse without a different emulator running separately. By tying 3D CAD models to IEC 61131-3 logic, true process visualization is possible.
Moving from 3D simulation to “digital twin” level
Digital twins are self-updating models of physical systems that integrate artificial intelligence algorithms and data from Internet of Things (IoT) technologies (such as smart sensors) with spatial network graphs. As the physical counterpart changes, the digital twin will modify itself in real time (or as close to real time as possible) to match the source’s status. Ideally, the visualization of a production line will constitute a true digital twin.
To create a replica of an industrial process that could be considered a digital twin, a simulator needs to have several key characteristics. First, it must have physics calculations built into the software to capture the correct cycle times. Second, it must replicate the actual performance of all hardware components. Finally, it must incorporate a logic simulator that can verify whether the ladder or structured text logic written for a process will perform as expected.
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Figure 2: sysmac_white3D: Combining Logic simulation with 3D models allows users to check for programming errors by verifying how physical components respond to the logic
Since visualization depends on data gathered from simulation and emulation, it’s essential for both of the latter processes to be as accurate as possible and to be tied together seamlessly. This means that “fudge factors” – assumptions that are made because the actual values are unknown – need to be minimized. These might be values related to equipment performance, such as the speed of the vision system. To avoid the need to do too many estimations, it helps to have a single program covering all automation needs, including motion, robotics, vision, safety and more.
Facilitating remote work and shortening commissioning time
Particularly to support social distancing in response to COVID-19, but also to be more agile in general, many companies are trying to get work done remotely whenever possible. When programmers can leverage a strong PLC simulation program and share complete 3D visualization models with each other, they no longer need to have an actual PLC sitting on their desks. Ultimately, everyone involved in the project can watch how any code changes affect the system and rest assured that everyone’s looking at the same thing without needing to have a $3000 paperweight sitting on their desk just for testing purposes.
Complete 3D visualization also reduces commissioning time because it makes it much easier to prove that the logic works with the physical properties of the machine before the machine is actually built. Upon testing the code and using the logic simulator, there are still several things that remain unknown. Will the axes move in the way they’re expected to? Will two servos end up colliding, even though the code says they won’t? These things can be easily tested when the code and 3D model is tied together, and better yet, collision detection can be used to check math in the code without damaging any equipment or wasting product.
Future expansion to include robotics in the same IDE
As this technology becomes more and more sophisticated, automation solutions providers will seek to incorporate complex robotic equipment to the same visualization and design platform. Ultimately, this will lead to a comprehensive digital automation universe in which a controls engineer can work within a single environment to design, program, simulate and verify every aspect of automation. This, in turn, will streamline machine design and commissioning and help end users turn their automation visions into reality much more quickly.
Since today’s consumer demand requires increasing amounts of customization, manufacturers need to adapt quickly and seamlessly to meet customer needs. Machine builders and end users will be able to take advantage of simulations that meet the need for rapid changes in production sites with shorter delivery times for equipment development high-precision assembly and simultaneous start-up of production lines at multiple sites. It’s up to today’s industrial automation solutions providers to create an IDE that facilitates all stages of automation, design through advance verification.