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Virtual Factory Testing

Virtual Factory Testing Gets Its Moment in the Spotlight

Aug. 3, 2020
What had previously been a theoretical testing option became a necessity during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted U.S. manufacturing as core to America’s critical infrastructure.

Manufacturing priorities have become national priorities as leaders reassess the industry’s capabilities necessary for a more resilient future. And various efforts now underway promise to accelerate both the digital transformation of manufacturing and the nation’s economic recovery.

One of those efforts is virtual factory testing. Validating the hardware and technology required to keep factories and infrastructure operational before installation has typically been done in person with engineers from the supplier and operator – but social distancing and critical personnel rules quickly changed that. As a response to COVID-19, many project and product managers have seized upon widely available digital technologies to take acceptance testing and product commissioning quickly online.

These virtual approaches have helped teams to maintain project momentum and employee safety by sustaining physical distancing to reduce the risk of viral exposure. Giving customers the option to log on and watch an acceptance test remotely can also help company bottom lines.

In addition, project managers frequently must travel to customer factory acceptance tests. Remote testing can allow project managers to turn travel time into valuable work time.

All of this highlights an even bigger opportunity as manufacturers grapple with how to be prepared for future shocks in the form of another pandemic, severe weather and more. By leveraging digital technologies, manufacturers and infrastructure operators can improve upon virtual testing methods used during COVID-19, while also gaining the capability to perform remote maintenance and operations moving forward.  

Virtual FAT: From Testing Option to Necessity

By early March, factory managers in charge of product commissioning across the country had begun to realize that the physical distancing rules for combatting COVID-19 would curtail in-person factory acceptance testing (FAT), a crucial step in fulfilling customer orders.

So, many product commissioning teams went virtual, using a video conferencing platform and digital cameras to perform FAT virtually. Using webinar and video technology, the virtual solution replicates the in-person experience as closely as possible.

What had previously been a theoretical testing option became a necessity for production to continue during the early stages of the pandemic in the U.S.

Digital Twin: Complete Virtual Product Commissioning

Just like virtual FAT via video, the use of a digital twin in product testing has been an option for some time. Now, driven by the same circumstances stemming from the pandemic that drove the adoption of remote video FAT, digital twin technology is poised to play a larger role in product commissioning and the more extensive process of testing a product throughout its construction and acceptance phases.     

The digital twin enables developers to more thoroughly test a product before building it via highly detailed physical and environmental simulations; once established, digital simulations can be adjusted to account for variables encountered during production, providing a more thorough testing process.

This validates machine operational behavior prior to and during manufacturing. Real commissioning and production can start from a position of being highly informed, which is of major importance given that the quality of an engineering project must be increased as early as possible in the product life cycle.

The debugging potential and flexibility of a virtual commissioning process can help product developers generate cost savings for themselves and customers. Increased cost savings across multiple production lines have the potential to drive more business and add considerable value.

More Brainpower in the Room

Another key benefit of both virtual testing via video and digital twin applications is the potential for more people to witness an online performance than could typically attend in person.

A piece of equipment might function exactly right during in-person testing, but when it arrives on-site the customer’s engineers might have been expecting something different. As more people are enabled to join a remote virtual test, they can better catch errors at the factory before product delivery.

Virtual sessions also offer more workers the opportunity to participate and connect with customers they might not otherwise see in person. For example, a project manager in one state can manage a virtual test at a factory in another state while communicating with a customer sitting in a third location.

Having so many variables preemptively accounted for virtually speeds up physical production, and with it, shipping and installation at a customer’s facility.

Loosening Bottlenecks for Equipment

Lag time can be a big factor with in-person acceptance testing. Rather than traveling to assess just one piece of equipment, customers might wait until a full purchase order of multiple pieces is ready. If a customer ordered 10 analyzers, for example, and nine are completed but production on the 10th piece is delayed, acceptance testing of the entire order could be delayed.

With virtual FAT, a manufacturer can send product data 24 to 48 hours after producing each unit to show functionality to the customer. This can speed up throughput and provide information to customers that much faster.

Product developers can use a digital twin to debug various control codes in a virtual environment before any software is programmed into physical equipment. Ensuring that automation equipment works as expected through virtual testing can significantly reduce time spent on machine installation and startup in the customer’s operation.

Indeed, using digital twins in the planning phase to find potential errors or malfunctions – rather than in the development lab (reworking actual parts), at startup, or during real-world operation (the machine running in the customer’s plant) – may save a great deal of time and money.

The benefits of virtual testing and commissioning methods being used today might not have become so visible without the pandemic. Yet, such approaches make sense and provide value.

These technologies are not only offering safeguards against emergent disruptions and protections for human health, but pathways to more competitive business models moving forward.

Ruth Gratzke,  is senior vice president, Siemens Smart Infrastructure U.S. Matt Schoessler is vice president of sales at Siemens Digital Industries.

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